New-wave Watson embraces challenges


EDISON, N.J. – Bubba 2.0 may be calmer with the occasional clarity of thought, but the human highlight reel has not dulled his signature honesty.

Unvarnished and unapologetic, Watson was asked on Thursday, after an opening 65 gave him a share of the lead, what about Plainfield Country Club, site of this week’s Barclays, suits his eye?

“Nothing. Well, the scorecard suited my eye. We'll take the scorecard all day,” he said.

Part of that love/hate relationship is based on Watson’s last visit to this slice of the Garden State in 2011 when he opened with matching rounds of 70 at The Barclays and missed the cut.

As hard as this may be to comprehend, it seems the last time Bubba played the Donald Ross gem he took a relatively measured approach off the tee; so this time he went with a much more aggressive playbook.

“We took a different strategy,” Watson said. “Ping makes a good driver, so we were going to try to hit driver as much as we can. The rough is so thick that I would rather miss my driver in the rough than an iron off the tee or something like that.”

It turns out Bubba Ball plays at Plainfield.

Although Watson hit just half of his fairways on Day 1 at The Barclays, he averaged 303 yards off the tee and found 14 of 18 greens in regulation on his way to a 5-under card that could have been even better had it not been for a three-putt from 73 feet at his final hole (he started on No. 10).

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Watson’s evolving game plan aside, as if the realization that hitting driver is in Bubba’s best interest is some sort of epic epiphany, his play on Thursday was not exactly a surprise.

In his last six PGA Tour starts, Watson has won in a playoff (Travelers Championship), finished runner-up at the RBC Canadian Open and WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and began the postseason third on the FedEx Cup point list.

Still, it’s not often that Bubba is something of an afterthought in his own threesome, but on Thursday he set out with world No. 1 Jordan Spieth and Jason Day, who is playing his first event since winning the PGA Championship.

Nor would many have taken Watson in a three-ball bet considering how well Spieth and Day have been playing, but Bubba beat the Masters and U.S. Open champion by nine strokes and the Australian by a field goal.

“It would be a surprise to me. Not so much Bubba's [play] but Jordan [who struggled to a 74 on Day 1],” Day said when asked if Thursday’s opening act played out the way he might have thought it would.

It was a measure of how far Watson has come that even after a three-putt on the last hole and bogeys at two of his final four holes he remained strangely upbeat, particularly on a golf course that likely isn’t on Bubba’s “bucket list.”

For a player who depends on visual feedback as much as Watson, Plainfield is far from plain and simple. As Bubba ran through his card on Thursday he had less of an affinity for the layout than a professional acceptance that not every flavor is going to be Augusta National, where he’s won twice.

“I’m not making excuses about how I play golf. But you look at the golf course, it's a blind shot off No. 1. If you leave it in the right spot, it's a blind shot on the second shot. No. 2 is a blind shot where it's landing,” he said. “I can keep going; there's a lot of blind shots out there.”

Although it’s taken the better part of 36 years, the player one national magazine recently featured under the headline “Bubba: Why we love him and why we don’t” has learned to embrace the rub of the green.

In the age of the “we” generation it is conversely refreshing that Bubba is still an old-school “me” kind of guy.

When Spieth talks about a golf shot or a decision it’s always a group, “We've gone about our business the way we wanted to,” the 22-year-old said earlier this week.

Conversely, Watson often appears alone on an island of his own making. One outlook isn’t better than the other, just different.

“I had some issues growing up where I was very angry at the world and at the golf, and so I've tried to get better at that,” Watson said. “Over the past few years, I've grown up, I guess you'd say, and my thinking, my processes, either I'm getting better as a person or I'm just tired of hitting bad shots on the golf course. So I'm thinking better.”

Embracing Plainfield and all its quirkiness may not exactly have the look and feel of a hard self-examination, but for Bubba it’s an indication that he’s at least interested in improvement and that’s a start.