Phil Mickelson – that other left-hander and the tournament favorite – was one shot behind when he chose to lay up from the rough on the 18th before Watson attempted his birdie putt.
Then came a loud cheer as Watson sank his putt for a two-shot lead, meaning Mickelson would have to hole out a wedge from 72 yards for eagle to force a playoff. He has his caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay tend the flag – rare for a full shot from the fairway – and gallery gasped when the ball landed just behind the hole and started to spin back toward the cup.
But it never had a chance.
Mickelson had said the secret to him playing the revamped South Course was to play it safe, and he followed that strategy all the way to a runner-up finish. Mickelson closed with a 69 to finish one shot behind.
Mickelson said the grass was into his ball, and that a hybrid would not have been enough to clear the water. To hit 3-wood would have gone well over the green, which he saw as a difficult shot. He figured his best chance at eagle was from the fairway, using the bank behind the hole to feed it toward the cup.
“I’m disappointed,” Mickelson said. “I wanted to start the year off with a win. On the other hand, I played really good golf.”
Watson finished at 16-under 272 for his second victory, although this one came against a much stronger field than his playoff win at the Travelers Championship last summer.
“It showed I can do it,” he said. “I’ve done it twice now. I’m only 50 behind Phil and about 80 behind Tiger. So they better watch out.”
Watson held off Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Jhonattan Vegas, the Venezuela rookie coming off a win at the Bob Hope Classic last week. Vegas tied Watson for the lead on the 10th hole and stayed in range throughout the back nine until his 5-iron from the first cut of rough on the 18th came up well short and into the water.
Vegas made bogey for a 68 and tied for third with Johnson, who shot 66.
Tiger Woods also was in the field, although no one noticed during the final two hours. Woods, who started the final round eight shots behind, closed with a 75 to end his five-tournament winning streak at Torrey Pines. He had never finished out of the top 10 at Torrey Pines, but wound up 15 shots back in a tie for 44th.
It was his worst season debut since his first full season on the PGA Tour in 1997.
“I have some work to do,” Woods said. “There’s no doubt about that.”
Watson had a one-shot lead over Vegas when he flew the 17th green from a fairway bunker, leaving him a downhill chip that went some 10 feet past the hole. He made that for par to keep the lead. On the final hole, with the tees moved so far up that it played only 522 yards, Watson went long into a tough spot in the bunker, again with the green running away from him.
He played out safely to 12 feet, and pumped his fist once when it dropped into the center of the cup.
Mickelson made his own charge. Belting a driver on the 17th, he played a perfect wedge that caught the slope and stopped 3 feet away for birdie that pulled him to within one shot. But he popped up his tee shot to the left, and while it appeared as though he had a good enough lie to reach the green, he quickly pulled out wedge and hit back toward the fairway.
Watson, who couldn’t hold back tears when he won for the first time last summer as his father was dying, cried again. His father passed away from cancer late last year.
Bill Haas, who shared the lead with Mickelson going into the final round, bogeyed the first hole and never caught up. He birdied the last hole for a 75 and tied for ninth.
Anthony Kim (72) and newlywed Hunter Mahan (73) were both within one or two shots of the lead on the front nine, but they couldn’t keep up and tied for sixth with Nick Watney, who shot 63 to match the best round on the South Course since Rees Jones revamped it after 2001 to prepare for a U.S. Open.
Watson earned $1.044 million and most likely will crack the top 20 in the world for the first time in his career.