AUGUSTA, Ga. – Bubba Watson, what will you do next?
Will you go on a winless drought like you did immediately following your first Masters victory, or will you use the next five years of your golfing prime to mow down foes the way you do at Augusta National?
With two major victories will your career ultimately resemble John Daly, who lost form following major success and is widely considered an underachiever, or Hale Irwin, who was a wizard in winning three U.S. Opens but added 20 PGA Tour victories to a resume that earned entrance into the World Golf Hall of Fame?
There is evidence to suggest any scenario is possible.
Watson, 35, always has been a work in progress. He’ll admit as much.
The aftermath of the first Masters victory two years ago was difficult. He and wife Angie had just adopted their baby boy, Caleb, and Bubba was learning how to be a father while dealing with the newfound attention that goes along with wearing a green jacket.
He handled it best he could, but his golf suffered.
Watson didn’t practice as diligently – which is understandable – and he dropped to 50th on the PGA Tour money list. Once a mainstay inside the top 10 in the world ranking, he plummeted to No. 30. The expectations that came with major glory coupled with fatherhood weighed heavily. So much so that his next victory after that 2012 Masters win came 22 months later at this year's Northern Trust Open.
“Last year was a big adjustment,” said Ted Scott, Watson’s faithful caddie. “You win a major, it changes everything. It changes the way the press see you, the media, the fans, everything. It just changes your whole world. So that’s a big adjustment for anybody. That’s one of his greatest assets is that Bubba does evaluate things and see how he can improve.”
Watson is back to playing Bubba Golf this year, which is impossible to describe but easy to notice once you see it. Essentially, it is Watson’s long-bombing, shot-making, go-for-broke, creative, swashbuckling style that endears him to galleries far and wide.
Scott simply calls Watson a “freak show.”
The purpose at the Masters this year for Watson was simple: He wanted to be Augusta National’s alpha male again.
“I didn’t know how to handle it the best way, so I didn’t play my best golf last year,” he said after his second-round 68 on Friday. “I was in awe when I was a champion … you know you’re sitting there amongst the great champions, and this year I got to be just a bystander.
“I’m coming back with the take that I want the jacket again. I’m coming back with a different mindset, full of energy.”
Watson, of course, accomplished his goal. He recorded a 366-yard drive on the par-5 13th hole that made patrons gasp, and he blistered an iron shot between trees and over water on the par-5 15th while attempting to protect a late lead. The latter shot caused announcer David Feherty to proclaim, “Oh, he’s lost his marbles!” It all worked, though, and Watson shot a final-round 69 to cruise to a three-shot victory over 20-year-old Jordan Spieth and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt. It’s his sixth-career Tour victory.
Even though this year produced the same result as 2012, the way Watson went about it was different. He was calm during the storm, not fidgety and agitated like he has been so often in the past. During a third-round 74 that could’ve dashed Watson’s hopes of victory, he stated that he was pleased that the round wasn’t much worse.
“If somebody told me on Monday I’d have 74 and still be tied for the lead, I’d have taken it all day long,” Watson said.
Scott confirmed, saying: “When things weren’t going well, I was in his ear saying, ‘Come on, man.’ And he said, ‘I got it, man. I’m fine.’
“I didn’t have to cheer him up, I didn’t have to pump him up, I didn’t have to encourage him. He was flat pretty much as far as his attitude, taking the good with the bad.”
Those close to Watson see that continued transformation off the course as well.
“He’s always going to be a kid at heart,” Rickie Fowler said. “But mentally and with his golf game as a dad and person he’s definitely grown up. I think he understands what’s going on.”
For Watson, what’s going on now is extremely heady stuff. It’s rare air. He just became the 17th man in history to win more than one green jacket. Of the 16 previous, only Tiger Woods is not in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Let’s go out on a limb and assume that’ll be a done deal when Woods is eligible in two years.
Chumps don’t win the Masters on multiple occassions.
The list: Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Jimmy Demaret, Sam Snead, Gary Player, Nick Faldo, Phil Mickelson, Horton Smith, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer, Ben Crenshaw, Jose Maria Olazabal and now Watson.
Right now Watson is the new king of Augusta National. Woods was on the disabled list and Mickelson failed to see the weekend for only the second time in his career, all while Watson was making the hallowed grounds his personal playground. Scary to think that Watson has the game to contend – and dominate – at the Masters for another 7-8 years, essentially from now until he is Mickelson’s current age.
Lest you think Watson is a one-trick major pony who only plays well at the Masters, remember that he lost in a playoff to Martin Kaymer in the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits and was in contention late at the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont.
Right now, though, none of that matters to Watson. There’s no looking back.
“Everything’s a go,” Watson proclaimed. “We are trying to make the Ryder Cup team. We are trying to win the next tournament, the next tournament we play in, trying to make the next cut. So it’s a lot different situation now than it was back then.”
But we must see that this will be different. Now is the time for Bubba to build on Masters momentum. All eyes will be on him.
What will he do next?