Over Valentine’s weekend, Pebble Beach golf fans were treated to the greatest left-handed player of all-time entering the final round with the lead. Phil Mickelson, who has won more tournaments and more majors than all the left-handed golfers in history combined, was unable to close the deal for his 43rd career Tour victory.
This time another portsider, took a one-stroke lead into the final round of the Northern Telecom Open at Riviera Country Club. It was Bubba Watson, and he held off a field of big stars including Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson and, for one shining moment, Rory McIlroy to capture his ninth Tour title. The win at Riviera broke a tie with Mike Weir and now makes Bubba the second most successful southpaw golfer of all time. With his win, Watson leaped two spots to World No 4.
“A Riddle Wrapped in a Mystery inside an Enigma”
Winston Churchill said it about Russia, but if he were commenting on today’s PGA Tour he could no doubt dredge up those words to describe the phenomenon that is Bubba Watson. He’s self-taught, seeks the advice of no coach, heeds the counsel of no one. He leaves his feet on drives, follows through with one hand and has been known to opt for a crowd-pleasing flop shot around the greens when a simple chip may suffice (see Riviera, Sunday 13th hole.)
No one’s mental approach to the game is dissected and analyzed more than Watson’s. Not the least by the man himself. After shaking off his challengers on that Sunday he said, “The physical game isn’t the problem. It’s the mental, and it’s staying focused. It’s staying focused on each shot. I’m thinking about dinner, I’m thinking about basketball games, I’m thinking about…”
How good can Bubba Watson be?
Watson didn’t win his first PGA tournament until 2010 he was 31 years old, after 108 starts and more than five years on Tour where he was known mostly for booming drives. After he won the Travelers Championship at Hartford, he wistfully imagined that “10 wins” would be a great career. Well, he’s almost there and only Rory McIlroy has won more times in that time span. McIlroy, the current World No 3, was making his first appearance on Tour in 2016 and moved into a tie for the lead after an eagle 3 at the first hole on Sunday, but was eventually buried by an avalanche of seven bogies. He slipped all the way down to 20th place.
Watson is used to always being the longest with the driver in the field. He’s led the Tour in driving distance every year since 2011. But on Sunday at Riviera, Bubba was not even the longest bomber in his threesome. Jason Konrak was hitting last into many greens and leading the tournament for much of the afternoon. Watson finished fifth in driving distance at Riviera, and was not gaining accuracy by sacrificing distance – he hit only 50 percent of his fairways.
But his iron play and short game were plenty good enough to grind down the competition and outlast Konrak, who has yet to win on tour. And Bubba uncorked 330-yard drives with his PING G driver into the center of the fairways on the 17th and 18th holes when he needed them most. The knock on Watson has been that he’ll destroy courses that are tailor-made for him (such as Augusta National where he has won two green jackets at the Masters) but he isn’t so formidable on courses where length’s not an advantage. However, performances like this most recent one, 15 under par and four rounds in the 60s, on a classic 1920s course like Riviera speak otherwise. Watson may have thought that ten wins would be a nice round number to achieve, but he he’s likely to have to live with a crooked number well beyond that.