Watson’s New Open Strategy: Dial Back

Due to the importance of hitting fairways at Pinehurst No. 2, Bubba Watson is making slight tweaks to his freewheeling style in the hopes of keeping the 'Bubba Slam' alive. (USGA/Jonathan Kolbe)

Due to the importance of hitting fairways at Pinehurst No. 2, Bubba Watson is making slight tweaks to his freewheeling style in the hopes of keeping the 'Bubba Slam' alive. (USGA/Jonathan Kolbe)

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

By Dave Shedloski

VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – The Masters champion is the only player still eligible to win golf’s Grand Slam. Or, if he were to claim all four major championships this year, would we call it the Bubba Slam?

“The Bubba Slam … that would be something unbelievable,” said the man who could author such an achievement, the mercurial ball-mashing left-hander, Bubba Watson. “I’m not sure what I would do if that happened. That would just be … that just sounds … awesome.”

Possible?

“I guess. I mean, anything’s possible. You know me,” Watson said.

Yes, well, with Bubba Watson holding a golf club, just about anything is possible.

When the 114th U.S. Open begins Thursday at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2, Watson will be among the favorites – a favorite in office pools and among the galleries in attendance.

Both constituencies find his style of play appealing, one that is as effective as it is entertaining. With two victories this year, including his second Masters title when he bombed and gouged Augusta National Golf Club into submission, Watson has become one of the game’s stars. And his timing could not be better with Tiger Woods on the sidelines and Phil Mickelson struggling.

“Do I feel like a star? No,” said Watson, 35, of Windermere, Fla., who cuts a striking figure on the golf course with his lithe 6-foot-3 frame. “I just play golf for a living. I try to compete at a high level. I always want to be a role model for my son. And this year, wearing the green jacket, I wanted to inspire as much as I could. So I think you’ve got to use the platform in the right way.”

Watson, who grew up in humble surroundings in Bagdad, Fla., wants to inspire kids to strive for their goals, however lofty they may be. He naturally inspires awe with the length he can hit a golf ball and the way he manufactures unconventional shots with his unorthodox, self-taught, spinout swing.

“Bubba Golf,” as it has been called, seems like a high-wire act. But, in truth, it is grounded in his own set of fundamentals. It works for him. Which is why it was a bit odd to hear that he plans to dial back on his power game this week. Because there is such a premium on hitting fairways at Pinehurst No. 2, Watson intends to play percentage golf, hit fewer drivers and try to stay out of the scruffy, sand-strewn natural areas that line the fairways, even though he is not uncomfortable playing out of such areas.

“I’ve grown up playing golf that way,” said Watson, recalling his home course in Milton, Fla., Tanglewood Golf Course.

So why not keep playing that way?

“Playing smarter, letting it be the second-shot golf course, just seems the law of averages is the best way to go,” Watson said. “I say hit fairways and just go with a longer shot into these tough greens. Not saying it’s the right strategy. Hopefully, in four days I can tell you it was a great strategy. But that’s what I’m planning right now.

“Now, if I make a few bogeys and doubles right quick, I might switch to the driver.”

A tie for fifth in 2007 represents Watson’s best U.S. Open performance, as well as his only top-10 finish. He has missed the cut in three of his other six appearances, and has recorded just one round under par out of 22 career rounds. But Watson is exhibiting a different brand of golf this year, mostly due to maturity and his mental approach.

“Right now I’m just mentally in the right spot in my life and golf is way down on the list,” he said.

Watson spoke Tuesday about how the U.S. Open can get in your head. He made mention more than once of Pinehurst’s “unfriendly” greens. He said Pinehurst No. 2 is the most difficult U.S. Open course he has ever seen.

And, yet, there was a gleam in his eye. Indeed, Watson does seem to be in the right place mentally.

“You want to come here and compete, because you want to challenge yourself against the golf course that’s tougher,” he said. “The U.S. Open, to me, was always about challenging myself. … It’s a chess match. Even though I don’t like chess, it’s a chess match where you have to plot it this way and that way and do the right things.

“Obviously, yes, as a kid I always dreamed about competing and playing in the U.S. Open. … I haven’t beat the golf course yet in the U.S. Open, so I’m still trying to get that one week where I can beat it.”

Perhaps this is the week. Only five men have won the Masters and U.S. Open in the same year: Craig Wood (1941), Ben Hogan (1951 and 1953), Arnold Palmer (1960), Jack Nicklaus (1972) and Tiger Woods (2002). Even half a Bubba Slam would put Bubba Watson in very good company.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA.org.

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