Watney grew up in Northern California and knows how fickle Poas imperfect surfaces can be, but it wasnt the turf, it was the technique. Something in his putting stroke wasnt right, hadnt been for some time.
For all of Watneys fearlessness and raw power, it has been the 27-year-olds putting that marked the middle ground between trophy hoisting and heading home empty handed. Its what drove Watney to Torreys practice green as darkness spread across the seaside muni. If only for 30 minutes, It was enough, the newest member of the Tours burgeoning Club Twentysomething smiled.
History will count Watneys towering hybrid second shot from 235 yards on the last hole as the haymaker that denied John Rollins the Buick Invitational title most had conceded to him five holes earlier. With a knowing smirk, Watney will count his nervous two-putt from 60 feet at the par-5 closer as the game winner. Or he will recount his 57-foot twofer on the 13th to keep pace with Rollins as the play of the game. Or hell cut straight to the case: Didnt have any three-putts.
Conversely, Rollins had too many a three-swipes, particularly down the stretch when he could have closed out Watney and fellow antagonist Camilo Villegas.
Rollins, who scorched the South on Friday with a 64 to move into the hunt, had four three-putts in an eight-hole stretch beginning at the 12th on Saturday and culminating with a sloppy bogey at the first to begin a final round that should have been a walkover considering he started the final lap leading by three.
Not that Rollins went meekly or quickly. Even after his unsteady start, he maintained the lead for 17 holes, pulling away with what appeared the clincher when he eagled the par-5 13th hole from 21 feet. With five holes to play, Rollins was three up on a group that included Watney, Villegas and Lucas Glover.
Despite the cushion, there was the slightest of cracks in Rollins game, an action that had appeared in perfect tempo for three days. From his home in Dallas, Rollins swing coach Randy Smith nervously watched his man round the turn Sunday.
He seems a little tense on his right side, said Smith, who suggested Rollins move closer to the ball on Tuesday. I want to see that right elbow fold a little earlier in the swing.
The result, Smith continued, was a shot that sailed slightly to the right. The first miss occurred on the 14th, when Rollins approach fell short and right of the green. Two holes later, another miss and some bad luck added up to a bogey-4 and his lead had been condensed to the size of a Southern California parking spot.
It was as bad a plugged lie as Ive had in a while, Rollins said of his tee shot on the 16th. It was an unfortunate break at that stage in the tournament. Things had been going along kind of OK, and then that got me there on 16.
Watney was dealing with his own sordid history on the 16th. During the final round of last years U.S. Open he three-putted from a similar spot on the scenic par 3, so when he stepped in on his 38 footer he wasnt expecting to walk off the green with a share of the lead.
I had an idea that it breaks a ton right there. I was really just trying to hit good speed, said Watney, who closed with a 68 for a 11-under 277 total. I wasn't sure if it was going to catch the front lip or not, but it did, and I'm very happy about that.
From there, Watneys power and an increasingly confident putting stroke finished things off. A towering drive followed by his bold approach at the last set up a two-putt birdie that had been anything but routine last year when he ranked a clumsy 138th on Tour in something called three-putt avoidance.
To his credit, Watney and swing coach Butch Harmon took a long look at his game after 2008 and spent two months in Las Vegas playing catch up. The focus for much of that time was on putting and short game, the payoff was Sunday at Torrey Pines.
I made quite a few short putts this week, so every 5, 6, 7-footer that I make, I think my confidence grows a little bit, and the 3-footer at the last will help, as well, said Watney, a long time cross handed putter who switched to a conventional grip last year.
Its a testament to Watney, whose only other Tour title came two years ago in New Orleans and from the front of the pack, that Harmon kept him among his stable of players when he trimmed to his Fab Five pupils last year. Among Harmons high-profile pupils is Adam Scott, Ernie Els, Natalie Gulbis, and perhaps the biggest surprise Buick week, Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson arrived at Torrey Pines, where he has won three times, fresh from a missed weekend at the FBR Open armed with a new driver and plenty of optimism. The new driver wasnt much better than the old version and, although the week started well on the unpredictable Poa, things unraveled on Sunday when he four-putted from the fringe at the sixth, an episode that included two misses from inside two and a half feet.
Villegas, one of the most dominant players on Tour since closing the season 2-0 in the FedEx Cup playoffs, played his first two rounds in 11 under and remained upbeat after tying for third despite a 2-over-par weekend.
I had a lot of fun. It was great playing with John and with Nick out there, Villegas said. As a matter of fact, walking down the 15th fairway, Nick looks at me, and he goes, 'You've got to love this.' I said, 'If you don't, just go sit on the couch.