Bubba Watson nearly left Mamaroneck, N.Y., on Wednesday as Hurricane Sally was starting to bear down on the Florida Panhandle and his home in Pensacola, Fla. His wife Angie told him to stay put.
Instead, he made a flight reservation to return home on Friday. Now it’s his game that’s telling him to stay put.
A two-time Masters champion, Watson hasn’t been able to concentrate fully on the myriad challenges that Winged Foot Golf Club’s West Course is presenting in this week’s 120th U.S. Open as he worries about the carnage that Sally left in its wake. His family is fine, but 2 feet of rain has caused widespread flooding, and more than 320,000 homes and businesses in Pensacola and Escambia County have been left without power.
Despite his worries about what’s happening at home, Watson was able to avoid Friday’s second-round scoring difficulties at Winged Foot, using his unique brand of power and creativity to post a 1-under-par 69, a rare sub-par score on a day when winds kicked up and helped kick the field in the teeth. Among the 72 players who embarked on Friday morning, only Bryson DeChambeau, with a 68, bettered Watson’s performance. They were the only two players under par for the day among the early finishers, and by late afternoon, Watson had moved from a tie for 57th after Round 1 into a tie for 10th.
Watson didn’t fully escape trouble, suffering a double bogey at the last. Still, his effort represents a departure from his usual U.S. Open fortunes. Friday’s score was just his third under-par score in 40 U.S. Open rounds. At 1-over 141, Watson will play on the weekend for the first time since 2016 at Oakmont and for only the sixth time in 14 championship starts.
“I was just getting the ball in play. I made a few putts. Just kept trying to hit the greens,” said Watson, who hit 14 greens on Friday after shooting 72 on Thursday while hitting 15 greens in regulation. “To hit that many greens in a U.S. Open, I think you're pretty happy. I just didn't make any putts. Even today I missed some putts that could have went in. It's not that I'm hitting bad putts, it's just they're not going in.
“Even though I made a double bogey on the last hole, I still played good golf at a U.S. Open.”
Good golf in a U.S. Open, as previously mentioned, has been rare for Watson. His only top-10 finish also came at Oakmont, in 2007, when he ended up T-5 without a round under par. It was suggested that the real-world problems of friends and family back home somehow made the itinerant challenges of Winged Foot easier to manage.
“Golf is golf, and life is more important than that,” he said.
But he knew what the questioners were getting at. Watson, 41, recently revealed that he is struggling with some mental issues.
A 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, he’s known for his free-thinking and free-swinging ways. He’s never had a lesson, playing golf on pure talent and intuition. The issues left behind in Sandy’s wake didn’t all of a sudden change who he is or how he approaches his vocation.
“No, I was nervous as could be out there. I was thinking about what the cut was even when I had three birdies in a row,” the lithe left-hander said. “I know what you're asking, but I'm telling you, I'm still a head case.”
With strong Christian beliefs, Watson has a good head on his shoulders, offering his home to friends and family who might need help, including a place to stay, in Sandy’s aftermath. His house is equipped with generators, so Angie and their two children are not going without.
“We have generators and we have different things that make the house work, even in a terrible situation,” he said. “So, a lot of people have been coming over for ice and different things, just trying to keep the kids safe and everything.
“Right now I’m trying to stay focused on a very difficult golf course instead of the very difficult situation at home, but my wife is holding the fort down pretty nicely, and again, we’ve been so lucky.”
Upon his return home, Watson plans to roll up his sleeves and help his community. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has been in touch, asking how the Tour can help. “When I get back, we'll assess how we can help, how we can help as the Watson family, how I can help a community that's helped me so much.”
That won’t be until Sunday night at the earliest, “a good problem to have,” he said.
A rare one, too. Golf isn’t life, but it is still a part of life for Watson. And, as luck would have it, a big part of the next two days.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to usopen.com and usga.org.