One of the most memorable episodes during my four years on the “Grey Goose 19th Hole” was a show we did with Bubba Watson at Bay Hill in March 2011. Our special guest seemed relaxed and ready, but when it came time to pre-tape the “Last Call” segment about a half-hour before live air, Bubba got the red-light fright.
The rest of us would write our closing thoughts, then read them off a teleprompter, which is at eye-level with the camera. Bubba, meanwhile, had decided to “wing it,” which only complicated things once he began to struggle. I basically offered to transcribe the running faucet in Watson’s mind – shape his stream of conscience into text so he could recite it back to viewers – but he was too nervous to really grasp that option.
Ten minutes out, the faucet was frozen. Watson did manage to gather himself and to get something down on tape, and when the show began, the “Live Bubba” was funny and opinionated, a good listener who turned his eccentric demeanor into an asset with his replies and topical riffs.
It was a fun evening, one that left Watson with a newfound appreciation for our side of the business – a different kind of pressure not nearly as intense as a sudden-death playoff at the Masters, but still, performance jitters just the same. I saw a very likeable guy that night, a real human not likely to perceive his skill at hitting a golf ball as making him better than everyone else.
Ability and vulnerability. That’s the Bubba I know. The road to his first major title was as winding and dramatic as the tournament he won, an episodic adventure broken down by Jay Coffin on this website shortly after Watson was awarded the green jacket. A lot of things had to fall in place for Bubba to end up with an emerald blazer, which isn’t to say he wouldn’t have run down to Kohl’s at some point and bought one off the rack, anyway.
No question in my mind, one of the biggest (and most overlooked) components to Watson’s victory was his final-round pairing with Louis Oosthuizen, whom he would end up defeating on the second playoff hole. Oosthuizen is as calm and emotionally unaffected as any player out there – the polar opposite of Bubba in a competitive context. If only in terms of transmitting a vibe, Oostie’s composure became Watson’s ally.
Add the double eagle Oosthuizen made at the par-5 second, which gave him a lead he would hold for most of the day, and Bubba knew he had to get down to business early, which required focus, which meant no wasted emotional energy when things didn’t go perfectly. For a high-strung racehorse such as Watson, these are crucial factors. Less than a month removed from blowing a 54-hole lead at Doral, where he missed an 8-footer at the 18th to force a playoff, we’re talking about a demonstrative golfer with a fragile psyche and negative recent history.
Thus, the second-to-last group made for a perfect spot. Nothing to squander, a ton to gain, and since Oosthuizen led the tournament for a vast majority of the time they were together, Watson had the bull’s-eye right in front of him. Still, with so many players coming and going, making a run toward the lead, then falling off – and marquee headliner Phil Mickelson trying to get back what he’d thrown away at the par-3 fourth – Bubba remained under the radar despite trailing by no more than two after a birdie at the fifth.
In a sense, the challenge of chasing someone down was much less stressful than being the guy everyone was chasing. It heightened Watson’s concentration, and when he got to the final third of the golf course, where the two par 5s clearly cater to his enormous length, Bubba pounced. Four consecutive birdies earned him a share of the lead. A pair of closing pars sent the two men to sudden-death.
At that point, Watson would compete for the most coveted title in golf against the same guy he’d been with all along. No new hand to shake, nothing to wonder about but his own golf ball. When he launched that baby into the trees right of the 10th fairway and found an opening, I had little doubt Bubba not only would devise a shot onto the green, but give himself a putt to win.
He played the shot quickly, avoiding mind clutter and trusting his instinct. That’s how Bubba Watson plays golf best – with his right-brain sensibilities governing that giant, left-handed swing. You throw all those factors together and you’ve got a champion at the 76th Masters. And a guy who will probably feel a lot more comfortable doing live TV in the years to come.