HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – As Erik Compton watched Sunday’s action unfold everything seemed in its proper order.
The folksy glide, the unorthodox swing, the fearless abandon, Compton had seen it for years but as Bubba Watson made his way through Augusta National’s historic closing stretch his former University of Georgia teammate noticed something different.
There was a focus in Watson’s face, maybe even a calm, if such a concept exists in that marvelously manic mind. When the eventual champion’s tee shot sailed into the trees right of the 10th fairway on the second playoff hole Compton knew something was different. Something special was about to happen.
“I get it because I have the ADD (attention deficit disorder) thing. He sees things in curves,” said Compton, who grew up playing junior golf against Watson and later with him at Georgia. “I knew he’d have a shot (at the second playoff hole). I think he won the Masters because he hit it in the trees. If he’d hit in the fairway he would have had a harder shot.”
It is the delicate balance of what Watson calls “Bubba golf.”
Compton took it a step further, calling it “Bubba’s way,” because it’s not just the blur-of-moving-parts swing that defines Watson, it’s the entire package – fearless, often to a fault, frequently distracted and undoubtedly talented, everyone who has ever been around Watson has immediately known that.
When Heath Slocum’s father took the head professional job in the early 1990s at Tanglewood Golf & Country Club in Milton, Fla., he immediately heard the rumors about the skinny fifth-grader who could hit it a country mile and curve it even farther.
“You could see he was raw, but he had to be good,” Slocum said. “He had so much game. I saw him try stuff that at the time I didn’t think was possible, and a lot of the time he pulled it off.”
So when Slocum, who was on vacation with his family and eating dinner when Sunday’s playoff reached its climax, received a text message from a friend that read, “(Bubba) just hooked a wedge 50 yards onto the green (at the second playoff hole). Two putts to win,” he wasn’t surprised.
The Tanglewood 19th hole is filled with tales of Watson’s fearless feats. Some of them are even true, outlandish stories that Georgia men’s golf coach Chris Haack had heard when he recruited the junior college transfer in 1999.
Haack took Watson to play Augusta National for the first time in the spring of 2000 and watched with great interest, and perhaps a little nostalgia, as his former player slashed his way to victory.
To Haack it was quintessential Bubba. He’d seen it for years when they’d march Watson to the bottom of the practice tee at the University of Georgia Golf Course and he’d pelt the range shed with drives.
“That was a 300-yard carry, uphill,” Haack laughed. “And that was before the new ball. I saw that a bunch; he was always a creative shot-maker and his game hasn’t changed much.”
Watson’s mind, however, has evolved. That was clear on Sunday when he birdied four consecutive holes starting at the 13th, when he split the fairway at the 72nd hole to virtually assure a playoff and when he calmly two-putted the second extra frame for victory.
It is telling that for Haack it was Watson’s putting, not his power, that impressed the most. Under pressure, the longtime coach had seen Watson’s tendency to decelerate on short putts.
These tendencies had shown up before.
Last month, Watson went into the final round at the WGC-Cadillac Championship with a three-stroke lead, signed for an outward loop of 39 and finished a stroke behind Justin Rose. At the 2010 PGA Championship, he bogeyed the 71st hole to drop into a playoff with Martin Kaymer and dumped his approach shot into a hazard on the third extra hole on his way to a double bogey to lose by a stroke.
“Just the fact that he had a fairly level head impressed me the most,” said Haack, who was contacted by the Georgia athletic director on Monday and informed to tell Watson that the school plans to honor him at a home game next football season.
But if clarity of thought when it mattered was the key for those who have watched Watson evolve from rail-thin swashbuckler to major champion, it was his slashing creativity that most will remember from the 2012 Masters.
Watson bristled late Sunday when it was suggested he couldn’t hit a straight shot saying, “I can hit it straight. It’s just it’s easier to see curves.” Those who have watched, however, beg to differ.
“I’m sure he could hit one but it might be a mistake,” Haack said, while Compton’s take was more pointed, “He says he can hit a straight shot, but I don’t believe it.”
The world may love “Bubba golf” in the wake of Watson’s major breakthrough, but consider Haack’s plight as a coach who always had to walk the fine line of trying to temper such immense talent.
“On one hand you tried to make observations on how to play a particular hole, but you didn’t want to take his strength out of his hands,” Haack said. “He is aggressive and powerful and that’s great, but it did bite him a few times.”
A “few times,” may be a bit of an understatement. Truth is on any given day Watson could win a tournament or finish last, it all depended on his mood and his ability to make magic out of mistakes like he did late Sunday at Augusta National.
“He could be 11 under par (in a team qualifier) and not qualify,” Compton recalls. “He could make an 18 on any hole. A 400-yard par 4 he tries to drive, you never knew. He’s Tin Cup, but he’s Tin Cup with a green jacket now.”
The artist, however flawed, finally has his masterpiece.