Watson: The Grinch who stole the Masters

By Jason SobelApril 14, 2014, 2:05 am

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The Grinch Who Stole the Masters is a gentle soul. He’s sensitive. He worries. He cries. Oh, he cries all the time. He’s temperamental, too. He can go from groovy to grumpy in a splash, then right back to groovy again. When he’s happy, he’s really happy, and when he’s unhappy, well, he’s really unhappy.

He stands 6-foot-3 and weighs 180 pounds – give or take a donut, if you believe the commercial. He wears a size 44-long green jacket. This he didn’t steal. He earned it two years ago, way before he became the Grinch. In fact, back then he was downright generous, authoring one of the most dramatic Masters finishes in history. He moved you to the edge of your seat, then caused you to jump right out of it. If Masters Sunday is like Christmas morning, then he brought you everything on your list.

This time, though, he wasn’t in such a giving mood. For everyone who tingles with anticipation for 364 days in hopes of a dazzling back-nine Masters finish, he robbed this place of the roars. He took away your excitement. He turned the greatest day on the annual golf calendar into a two-hour snoozefest before dinner.

The Grinch is named Gerry Lester Watson, Jr. – but you can call him Bubba.

To his credit, he didn’t start out the day as Augusta’s answer to watching paint dry. Despite his prodigious length, he failed to birdie the par-5 second hole, falling a stroke behind playing partner Jordan Spieth. By the time they walked off the fourth hole, he was two down. The same differential existed three holes later.

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We appeared destined for one of those unpredictable, roller-coaster final rounds, the kind that have made these hallowed grounds even more revered. There are times when the green jacket is like a ball in a roulette wheel, the lucky winner claiming the prize if he’s on the right number when it stops rolling. This was going to be one of those times. Maybe it would be the 20-year-old Spieth. Or the 50-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez. Or one of any number of contenders.

Bubba changed that thinking in a hurry.

He birdied the eighth hole when Spieth bogeyed to move into a tie. They repeated those scores on the ninth to give Bubba a two-stroke lead going to the back nine. And you know what they say, over and over again, every year: The Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday.

As it turns out, this one was finished when the final pairing made the turn. Bubba dropped a shot on the 10th, but extended his lead to two again at the 12th hole. From there, he put it into cruise control.

The Grinch robbed us of our magical Masters Sunday.

“The shot out of the woods made me famous,” he admitted, “but this one was a lot better for me and my nerves.”

It was so boring that even Bubba was bored. A self-proclaimed, undiagnosed sufferer of attention deficit disorder, he wouldn’t allow himself to bunt the ball around the last half-dozen holes and play defense. Instead of running out the clock, he was throwing Hail Marys.

On the par-5 13th hole, he decided to cut off the corner and blasted his drive 366 yards … with a fade … off a tree branch. He birdied, of course.

Two holes later, leading by three, the entire viewing audience collectively cringed when he decided to throw caution to the negligible wind. Rather than play it smart and lay up on the par-5 15th, he went for the risky play and tried to reach in two. It was pretty exciting – for a few seconds. Until his ball bounded off the back of the green and he carded a par to retain the advantage.

“You know me,” he said with a smile, “I wanted to get it a little closer to the pin, and so I cut it a little bit without telling my caddie I was going to do that.”

By the time the final pairing reached the 18th green, site of so many fireworks for 77 previous editions of this tournament, it was all over but the crying.

While Bubba was lining up his birdie attempt with caddie Ted Scott, you might have been dozing off. That’s OK – it’s exactly what he wanted. He robbed you, on the greatest afternoon of the golf year, of any excitement.

“Teddy was helping read [it],” he explained. “I went over to him and I said, ‘I'm not very good at math, but we've got four putts, right? He goes, ‘Yes, just lag it down.’

“It's a lot better for my nerves this way.”

For him, sure. He didn’t have to make a crucial birdie down the stretch or hit a near-impossible hook shot from the trees. He didn’t have to sweat it out. He didn’t have to be too nervous.

It wasn’t better for you, though. Bubba’s poise and composure down the stretch deprived you of the thrill ride that so often happens on golf’s greatest afternoon.

That’s why, in the end, this Sunday truly belonged to the Grinch Who Stole the Masters.

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Tiger's checklist: How he can contend at Augusta

By Ryan LavnerFebruary 21, 2018, 8:31 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Augusta is already on the minds of most players here at the Honda Classic, and that includes the only one in the field with four green jackets.

Yes, Tiger Woods has been talking about the Masters ever since he started this latest comeback at Torrey Pines. These three months are all about trying to build momentum for the year’s first major.

Woods hasn’t revealed his schedule past this week, but his options are limited. He’s a good bet to play at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where he has won eight times, but adding another start would be a departure from the norm. He’s not eligible for the two World Golf Championship events, in Mexico and Austin, and he has never played the Valspar Championship or the Houston Open.

So there’s a greater sense of urgency this week at PGA National, which is realistically one of his final tune-ups.

How will Woods know if he’s ready to contend at Augusta? Here’s his pre-Masters checklist:

1. Stay healthy

So far, so good, as Woods tries to resume a normal playing schedule following four back surgeries since 2014. Though he vowed to learn from his past mistakes and not push himself, it was a promising sign that Woods felt strong enough to sign up for the Honda, the second of back-to-back starts on separate coasts.

Another reason for optimism on the health front: The soreness that Woods felt after his season opener at Torrey Pines wasn’t related to his surgically repaired back. No, what ached most were his feet – he wasn’t used to walking 72 holes on hilly terrain.

Woods is stiffer than normal, but that’s to be expected. His back is fused.

2. Figure out his driver

Augusta National is more forgiving off the tee than most major courses, putting more of a premium on approach shots and recoveries.

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That’s good news for Woods, who has yet to find a reliable tee shot. Clearly, he is most comfortable playing a fade and wants to take the left side of the course out of play, but in competition he’s been plagued by a two-way miss.

In two starts this year, Woods has hit only 36 percent of the fairways, no matter if he was using driver, fairway wood or long iron.

Unfortunately, Woods is unlikely to gain any significant insight into his driver play this week. PGA National’s Champion Course isn’t overly long, but there is water on 15 of the 18 holes. As a result, he said he likely will hit driver only four times a round, maybe five, and otherwise rely on his 3-wood and 2-iron. 

Said Rory McIlroy: “Being conservative off the tee is something that you have to do here to play well.”

That won’t be the case at Augusta.

3. Clean up his iron play

As wayward as Woods has been off the tee, his iron play hasn’t impressed, either.

At Riviera, he hit only 16 greens in regulation – his fewest in a Tour event as a professional. Of course, Woods’ chances of hitting the green are reduced when he’s playing from the thick rough, sand and trees, but he also misfired on six of the eight par 3s.

Even when Woods does find the green, he’s not close enough to the hole. Had he played enough rounds to qualify, his proximity to the hole (39 feet, 7 inches) would rank 161st on Tour.

That won’t be good enough at Augusta, where distance control and precision are paramount.

Perhaps that’s why Justin Thomas said last week what many of us were thinking: “I would say he’s a pretty good ways away.”

4. Get into contention somewhere

As much as he would have liked to pick off a win on the West Coast, Woods said that it’s not a prerequisite to have a chance at the Masters. He cited 2010, when he tied for fourth despite taking four months off after the fallout from his scandal.

In reality, though, there hasn’t been an out-of-nowhere Masters champion since Charl Schwartzel in 2011. Since then, every player who eventually donned the green jacket either already had a win that year or at least a top-3 finish worldwide.

“I would like to play well,” Woods said. “I would like to win golf tournaments leading into it. The years I’ve won there, I’ve played really well early.”

Indeed, he had at least one win in all of the years he went on to win the Masters (1997, 2000, ’01, ’05). Throw in the fact that Woods is nearly five years removed from his last Tour title, and it’s reasonable to believe that he at least needs to get himself into contention before he can seriously entertain winning another major.

And so that’s why he’s here at the Honda, trying to find his game with seven weeks to go. 

“It’s tournament reps,” he said, “and I need tournament reps.”

Add that to the rest of his pre-Masters checklist.

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Players winner to get 3-year exemption into PGA

By Rex HoggardFebruary 21, 2018, 8:01 pm

Although The Players isn’t golf’s fifth major, it received a boost in that direction this week.

The PGA of America has adjusted its criteria for eligibility into the PGA Championship, extending an exemption for the winner of The Players to three years.

According to an official with the PGA of America, the association felt the winner of The Players deserved more than a single-year exemption, which had been the case, and the move is consistent with how the PGA Tour’s annual flagship event is treated by the other majors.

Winners of The Players were already exempt for three years into the Masters, U.S. Open and The Open Championship.

The change will begin with this year’s PGA Championship.

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Thomas: Playing in front of Tiger even more chaotic

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:52 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Justin Thomas may be going from the frying pan to the fire of Tiger Woods’ pairings.

Translation: He’s going from being grouped with Woods last week in the first two rounds at the Genesis Open to being grouped directly in front of Woods this week at the Honda Classic.

“Which might be even worse than playing with him,” Thomas said Wednesday.

Typically, the pairing in front of Woods deals with a lot of gallery movement, with fans racing ahead to get in position to see Woods’ next shot.

Thomas was quoted after two rounds with Tiger at Riviera saying fans “got a little out of hand,” and saying it’s disappointing some golf fans today think it’s “so amusing to yell and all that stuff while we’re trying to hit shots.”

With 200,000 fans expected this week at the Honda Classic, and with the Goslings Bear Trap pavilion setting a party mood at the 16th green and 17th tee, that portion of the course figures to be quite lively at PGA National.

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Thomas was asked about that.

“I touched on this a little bit last week,” Thomas said. “I think it got blown out of proportion, was just taken out of context, and worded differently than how I said it or meant it.

“I love the fans. The fans are what I hope to have a lot of, what all of us hope to have a lot of. We want them cheering us on. But it's those certain fans that are choosing to yell at the wrong times, or just saying stuff that's completely inappropriate.”

Thomas said it’s more than ill-timed shouts. It’s the nature of some things being said.

“It's one thing if it's just you and I talking, but when you're around kids, when you're around women, when you're around families, or just around people in general, some of the stuff they are saying to us is just extremely inappropriate,” he said. “There’s really no place for it anywhere, especially on a golf course.

“I feel like golf is pretty well known as a classy sport, not that other sports aren't, but it has that reputation.”

Thomas said the nature of the 17th hole at PGA National’s Champion Course makes it a more difficult tee shot than the raucous 16th at the Waste Management Phoenix Open. Typically, players like to hear fans get into the action before or after they hit shots. Ill-timed bluster, however, makes a shot like the one at Honda’s 17th even tougher.

“That hole is hard enough,” Thomas said. “I don't need someone yelling in my ear on my backswing that I'm going to hit it in the water, to make it any harder. I hope it gets better, just for the sake of the game. That's not helping anything. That's not helping grow the game.”

Those who follow golf know an ill-timed shout in a player’s backswing is different than anything a fan says at a football, basketball or baseball game. An ill-timed comment in a backswing has a greater effect on the outcome of a competition.

“Just in terms of how much money we're playing for, how many points we're playing for ... this is our jobs out here, and you hate to somehow see something that a fan does, or something that they yell, influence something that affects [a player’s] job,” Thomas said.

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Rory: Phil said RC task force just copied Europe

By Randall MellFebruary 21, 2018, 7:21 pm

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. – Playing the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am two weeks ago, Rory McIlroy quizzed Phil Mickelson about what the Americans got out of the U.S. Ryder Cup task force’s overhaul.

McIlroy and Mickelson were paired together at Pebble Beach.

“Basically, all they are doing is copying what the Europeans have done,” McIlroy said.  “That's what he said.”

The Europeans claimed their sixth of seven Ryder Cups with their victory at Gleneagles in 2014. That brought about a sea change in the way the United States approached the Ryder Cup. Mickelson called out the tactics in Gleneagles of captain Tom Watson, who was outmaneuvered by European captain Paul McGinley.

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The Americans defeated Europe at Hazeltine two years ago with that new European model.

“He said the first thing they did in that task force was Phil played a video, a 12-minute video of Paul McGinley to all of them,” McIlroy said. “So, they are copying what we do, and it's working for them. It's more cohesive, and the team and the core of that team are more in control of what they are doing, instead of the PGA of America recruiting and someone telling them what to do.”