DUBLIN, Ohio – In the two eventful years since he first slipped a lanky arm into that coveted green jacket, Bubba Watson has learned how to be a Masters champion and a father and a husband.
If Saturday’s 69 at the Memorial Tournament is any indication, he’s also learned how to be consistent.
After his first Masters victory in 2012, Watson concedes that he wasn’t ready for the fame and fortune and a growing family.
Watson missed the cut in two of his next three starts after his breakthrough at Augusta National and needed nearly two years to track down the winner’s circle again on the PGA Tour. This time, however, has been different.
Although he tied for 48th in his first start after last month’s Masters, done in by a closing 76 at TPC Sawgrass, Watson freely admits that he’s matured, both on and off the golf course.
“When you first win, you think you're a hero,” said Watson, who leads Scott Langley by a shot at 12 under par with world No. 1 Adam Scott looming at 9 under. “You put more pressure on yourself to be great, I guess you’d say. Now I realize I'm not very good, I'm not very great. So there's less pressure.”
So far this week he’s played like a hero on Muirfield Village’s par 5s. The 35-year-old is 11 under on the par 5s, a run that includes a rare miscue at the 11th hole on Saturday when his tee shot found the creek left of the fairway.
It’s all been enough to give the six-time Tour winner a rare boost of confidence on a course where he’s enjoyed almost no success.
“Shooting in the 60s around here, hopefully I can come in the top (23) so it will beat my previous record,” smiled Watson, whose best finish in eight starts at Jack’s place is a tie for 23rd in 2007.
Watson scorched the front nine with five birdies through seven holes and took the lead from Paul Casey with a two-putt birdie at the par-5 seventh hole. Although he stumbled at the last with a bogey, his only real brush with trouble came during a high-definition moment when he appeared to touch his golf ball while preparing to hit his fourth shot.
“It looked like he may have just touched it, but the ball didn’t move,” said Slugger White, a vice president of rules and competition for the Tour.
Under Rule 18-2a, a player can touch a golf ball at address as long as the ball doesn’t move out of its original position, which Watson’s did not.
Instead, the pack will begin Sunday adrift of one of the most consistent players on Tour this year. Watson has won twice this season, finished in the top 10 in six of his 10 starts and hasn’t missed a cut this season.
The good news for the cast of supporting actors assembled behind Watson is a golf course that is playing surprisingly hard and fast. It seems Chief Leatherlips, who is said to have cursed the Memorial Tournament to ubiquitous rain delays throughout the years, has gone soft on Jack Nicklaus’ tournament in 2014.
Players have enjoyed perfect conditions this week, which has produced a golf course that is on the U.S. Open side of edgy.
“I’ve played with two guys the last two days (Rory McIlroy and Gary Woodland) and not to be negative, but have made three double (bogeys) in a row. World-class players,” said Scott, who posted his best score of the week on Saturday (68) and is fresh off his victory last week at the Colonial.
“You get a little out of position on this golf course and you can really pay the price and it’s not easy to go out there with the lead and expectation of playing good and just run away with it.”
Langley will have the best chance to run down Watson, although he is playing in the final pairing on Sunday for just the second time in his career. The first time was his first career start as a Tour member at last year’s Sony Open when he closed with an even-par 70 and tied for third.
Jordan Spieth, who seemed to break out of his post-Players swoon with a third-round 67, is in a large group four strokes back along with former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel.
It may also give the field some hope that Watson has struggled on Muirfield Village’s closing three holes. He’s 5 over par on that stretch this week and hasn’t made par at the par-4 17th hole since last year’s event.
But when Nicklaus doles out the hardware late Sunday afternoon it will likely be a new and improved Watson who will have the final say in how things play.
“I'm not anxious about going to the next tournament and trying to be No. 1 in the world, not trying to be the next great champion,” Watson said. “I'm just trying to play golf.”
And just trying to be Bubba has been more than enough this season.