AUSTIN, Texas – In 1958, the Georgia Bulldogs rolled into the Texas state capital with Fran Tarkenton at the helm.
Sixty years later, another Bulldog fared much better than the football Hall of Famer.
Tarkenton lost that season-opener, 13-8, which wasn’t a far cry from the beating Bubba Watson put on fellow Dawg Kevin Kisner in the finals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play.
Watson thumped his fellow alum, 7 and 6, at Austin Country Club.
It was the most lopsided rout since the Match Play went to 18-hole championship matches in 2011, and made for some bitter-sweet viewing for Chris Haack, who coached both Watson and Kisner at Georgia.
“Someone asked me who I was going to be rooting for and I said, ‘Georgia,’” Haack laughed.
But if Watson and Kisner both share an affinity for Athens, Ga., that’s where the similarities end.
Kisner is intense on the course and exceedingly grounded away from competition, while Watson is prone to bouts of mental lapses during rounds and let’s say, quirky behavior when he’s not carving drives into the great beyond.
Where Kisner seems to be made in a lab to play match play (Note to U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk, following victories for Kisner this week over match play “ninja” Ian Poulter and Alex Noren you may want to have him fitted for a team uniform now), Watson’s relationship with the format is something of a mixed bag. The same qualities that have now lifted the left-hander to his 11th PGA Tour title, often worked against him in college.
“That was probably his weakness, he had a go-for-broke mentality and instead of playing smart he’d stay aggressive and make a ‘7’ on a hole and keep from making the line-up,” Haack recalled. “Kisner never missed qualifying for a tournament, ever. Bubba did. He had to learn to be more conservative and gear back and he’s done a good job of that.”
In seven previous trips to the Match Play, Watson made it to the weekend just twice, including his semifinal loss in 2011, and his fortunes didn’t seem to be improving when he halved his Day 3 pool play match with Julian Suri.
“Match play is not my favorite,” Watson said.
But he rebounded with a hard-fought 2-and-1 victory over Brian Harman in the Round of 16 and cruised to the final from there by defeating Justin Thomas, 3 and 2, who was the highest-seeded player to make the weekend.
Maybe that’s why this victory seemed so special to Watson. Five days, seven matches and 109 holes is a long time not to get distracted, particularly for Bubba.
For all the distractions that accompany the Tour’s most demanding test, all the potential pitfalls that are inherent to match play, all the reasons to figure that this might not be his week, Watson did what doesn’t always come naturally to him – he maintained his mental focus.
“His mind has just been great this year,” said Ted Scott, Watson’s caddie of 12 years. “Sometimes when you fall from the top, and he had some health issues and stuff, when you come back you’re like, OK, this isn’t the most important thing in my life. The hardest part is the world tries to label these guys as a golf score. The game of golf isn’t difficult for Bubba, it’s the extra stuff, the distractions can be difficult. For him, focus is just about not getting distracted.”
He wasn’t perfect at Austin Country Club, admitting that throughout the course of the week he only lost focus about four or five times, most notably on the par-4 13th hole in his semifinal match against Thomas.
“In my head, in my imagination, I kept seeing a slice driver catching the slopes and then just trickling on the green or right next to the green,” Watson explained. “So every day, even though that number is not even scary when it comes to me hitting a driver, in my head, I just panicked and I wasn't committed.”
But those concerns were few, and he proved extremely adept at playing his opponent and not allowing his aggressive tendencies to dictate an unwise and unneeded game plan. That was evident in the week’s final match when Kisner played his first four holes in 3 over par and made the turn 6 down. During that span, Watson was a conservative 1 under par.
“When you get a lead in match play the one thing you never want to do is give your opponent any sort of momentum. You want them to have to earn it,” Scott said. “He didn’t give many holes away for the week.”
If all this doesn’t exactly sound like the Bubba we’ve become familiar with over the years, it’s not too much of a stretch to declare that there has been an evolution. Some of this newfound perspective was born from 2017, when he hit rock bottom professionally.
He failed to win last season, failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs and told the world that he was going to step away from the game for a few months. It didn’t take nearly that long for him to rediscover the spark that made him a two-time Masters champion.
“Last year was the lowest point, I would have to say one of my lowest points in my life,” Watson said. “It just mentally, being an athlete is not easy.”
From those depths, Watson has now won twice on Tour in a little over a month and defied conventional wisdom with a victory at the Match Play, which is widely considered the game’s most mentally challenging marathon.
Sixty years ago, Tarkenton's squad came up short in Austin. Watson’s performance, by any measure, was so much better.