AUGUSTA, Ga. — In order to feel the pressure of The Masters, there must be people to provide it. Indeed, in order for The Masters to feel like The Masters, there must be those moments when one roar is trumped by another, a full house suddenly and impossibly outdone by a straight flush. It is what defines spring Sundays at Augusta National Golf Club.
Yet here was Bubba Watson, standing on the 18th tee Sunday, pulling 4-wood from his bag and hitting a nice, comfortable draw down the center of the fairway. Ho-hum. If he was sweating, it was solely because of the heat. He is perhaps the most dynamic player in golf, yet to win what is annually one of the most harrowing events in all of sports, he closed with five straight pars, hugged his wife and son, and slipped easily into his second green jacket in three years.
“Nobody really caught fire,” Watson said.
What an odd thing to say about any Masters, particularly one involving the 35-year-old Watson, who spits out birdies and bogeys by the bunch, a golfing Tilt-a-Whirl.
This is to take nothing away from what Watson accomplished Sunday, controlling the entire tournament – his ball, his emotions, his fate – with a final-round 69 that left him 8 under par, three shots better than 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, his playing partner in the final group, and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, another Masters rookie.
Contrast this with Watson’s first Masters win, which came in 2012 in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen, when he pulled off a ridiculous shot – a slinging hook off pine straw – with the most intense pressure. What will define this Masters? How about a stat straight from the U.S. Open: The top three finishers combined to make two birdies on the back nine.
“Playing this way was a lot better,” Watson said, “a lot easier.”
It is also a measure of how much easier Watson’s life has become. The week before his first Masters victory, he and his wife Angie adopted a one-month-old boy, Caleb. He nearly skipped the tournament. When he won, he had to call his wife, who was still at home. He then effectively went into a slump that lasted a year-and-a-half – the amount of time it took to figure out how to balance work and family.
Sunday night, when he made his final par, Angie and Caleb embraced him on the 18th green. All this would seem to make him a more balanced, more grown man.
“He’s gone from like 12-and-a-half to 14,” said Rickie Fowler, Watson’s friend who finished tied for fifth, six strokes back. “He’s getting there. He’s always going to be a kid at heart. But mentally and with his golf game and as a dad and a person he’s definitely grown up.”
How odd that on Sunday the most important stuff came before Watson and Spieth made the turn. Spieth deftly and delicately feathered in a birdie putt from 10 feet above the hole at the par-4 seventh. As he walked to the eighth tee at 8 under, men in the gallery surmised to their buddies, through their cigar smoke and beer: “The kid could do it!”
When Spieth hit his tee shot at the par-5 eighth, he led by two over Watson, four over Matt Kuchar and five over Blixt, with realistic hopes of becoming the youngest Masters champ ever. And he knocked a nice one out there, even with the bunker on the right. No problem.
But what Watson did next served notice that, deficit or not, his foot would be on the pedal. He lashed at his driver, the one with the pink shaft, and the ball sailed, all but waving at Spieth’s on the way by. Here came the turn: Spieth took 3-wood, and was short and right. Watson pulled 5-iron to cover the 247 yards to the hole, and it went through the green.
Spieth clipped his ensuing chip as he wanted, and it tumbled toward the cup. “We thought we had hit it long, and it came up short,” said Michael Greller, Spieth’s caddie. Short enough that Spieth three-putted for bogey, and when Watson got up and down from over the green for birdie – poof – the lead was gone. They both stood at 7 under.
At the par-4 ninth, Spieth thought he hit his approach hole-high but watched the ball tumble back off the green, another bogey. Watson rolled in a 14-footer for his second birdie in a row, and a two-shot deficit had become a two-shot cushion.
“It’s a stinger,” Spieth said.
There were two more moments that, if they didn’t change the tournament, at least helped Watson define it as his. At the par-5 13th, Watson hit a slicing drive that looked as if it might go out of bounds. Instead, it clipped trees, and landed some 366 yards from the tee, eliciting roars.
“You hear a roar on your tee shot,” Watson said, “you know it’s pretty good.”
It led to his only birdie on the back. At the par-5 15th, he appeared to be blocked out to the left, with a pair of huge trees in front of him. He pulled a 6-iron, choked up, and punched it through the limbs.