Proving his 2012 win was no fluke, Bubba Watson coasted to a three-shot victory at the Masters, attacking Augusta National as only he can and showing the world how far he has come on and off the course
WHEN GERRY Lester Watson Jr. won the Masters two years ago, he was little more than a carnival act in spikes. He had a pink driver, a funny lefthanded swing and a jumpy demeanor. Self-diagnosed with ADD, he never played the same shot twice, curving his ball as if it were a Frisbee and creating his own lexicon to describe his work: slap-cut, slinging slice, rope-hook. It made perfect sense that Watson clinched that Masters playoff victory with a freakish shot out of the trees, the quintessence of what he liked to call Bubba Golf. No one knew quite what to make of him back then. Watson could be churlish on the golf course, goofy on social media and an endearing puddle of tears whenever he talked about his baby boy, Caleb, or his late father, Gerry, who introduced him to golf by having him hit Wiffle balls in the backyard and offering only one piece of advice: "Swing hard." To this day Watson, 35, has never had a formal lesson. The 2012 Masters was just the fourth career victory for this late bloomer, and it was impossible to know where he would go from there.
To the moon, it turns out. Last week, at the 78th Masters, Watson did more than win his second green jacket: He expanded our belief of what is possible at Augusta National, golf's grandest stage. The defining shot of Watson's victory was his right-angle fade off the 13th tee—"I thought it was out-of-bounds 70 yards left," said playing partner Jordan Spieth—which clipped a tree on the corner of the dogleg but still traveled 366 yards, leaving only a sand wedge into the par-5. Watson's ensuing two-putt birdie was his only one on the back nine, but it provided all the cushion he needed to cruise to a relatively stress-free three-stroke victory. Now the self-described "Bubba from little ol' Bagdad, Florida" joins the legends who have won multiple Masters, and only Horton Smith among them needs a first name: Nicklaus, Palmer, Woods, Mickelson, Faldo, Demaret, Snead, Player, Nelson, Hogan, (T.) Watson, Ballesteros, Langer, Olaàbal and Crenshaw. On Sunday the last man on that list sat in the Augusta National clubhouse, drinking a toddy and trying to absorb what he had seen. Crenshaw won his two green jackets (in 1984 and '95) by dinking it around the course and coaxing birdies out of Little Ben, his celebrated putter. "He is out of this world," Crenshaw said of the new champ. "I mean, that drive on 13, are you kidding me? What game is he playing?" He slowly took a sip to consider his own question. "It's not golf," the 62-year-old Crenshaw said finally. "It's different than that. It's like a symphony, a painting, sculpture. It's artistic expression. Bubba sees the course in big parabolas and arcs, not in straight lines. The power is one thing, but what makes him so unique is the creativity. Put those together, and he can play this course like nobody else."
That was evident on the back nine last Friday, when Watson made five straight birdies to key a 68 that propelled him to a three-stroke lead. He pushed the margin to five on Saturday after an easy eagle (driver, 6-iron) on the 575-yard par-5 2nd hole, but from there Watson labored to a 74 on the firmest, fastest Masters setup in recent years. And yet even this mediocre score represented progress, as Watson maintained his composure and battled to the bitter end, getting up and down on 18 to hang on to a share of the lead with Spieth. Says Watson's caddie, Ted Scott, "I was in his ear saying, 'C'mon, man!' and he said, 'I got it, man, I'm fine.' He was flat as far as his attitude, taking the good with the bad. That's what you have to do to win a major championship. As soon as you get thinking the wrong way, you're done."
In the past Watson let tournaments slip away by going a little mental, and the accompanying sniping at Scott earned him a sour reputation among plenty of players and caddies. Drawing from a favorite piece of scripture (Philippians 4:4), Watson said even before the Masters that his only goal for this year was to spend his rounds "rejoicing." A win this year at Riviera and runner-up finishes at Phoenix and Doral proved how dangerous he could be if he kept his emotions under control. When Rickie Fowler was asked last week if his good friend is finally maturing, he said, "Yeah, he's gone from, like, 12½ to 14." After a chuckle, Fowler added, "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 as a person, he's definitely grown up."
Watson owes it all to his wife, Angie, a former WNBA player who stands an inch taller than her 6'3" hubby, and to Caleb, who was a month old when Dad won his first Masters. Caleb wasn't in Augusta two years ago because his adoption was still being finalized, and Florida law prevented him from leaving the state. No wonder that even in victory, Bubba said his favorite part of last week was having his son caddie for him during the par-3 tournament. But Caleb wasn't the only little boy Watson was playing for in Augusta.
AT THE 2012 Masters, Bubba teed it up in a practice round with Fowler and Webb Simpson, whose caddie, Paul Tesori, had made a bet with his wife, Michelle: If she could locate the only palm tree on the grounds of Augusta National, he would buy her a fancy new wedding band. Watson caught wind of the wager and delighted in revealing the tree's location to Michelle. (It's to the right of the 4th green, tucked into a bamboo thicket.) On a lark, the players vowed that if one of them won that Masters, they'd cover the cost of the ring for Tesori, who nevertheless was a little sore about Watson's interference. After Bubba prevailed, he made good on the promise.
The families were bonded in a more profound way on Jan. 4, 2014, with the harrowing arrival of the Tesoris' first child, Isaiah. He suffered a seizure in the delivery room and had bleeding on the brain. While Isaiah fought for his life in the NICU, Michelle sent out a Facebook post updating friends on his condition. The Watsons were driving when they received word—Bubba immediately pulled over to the side of the interstate. "He and Angie cried and prayed out loud for our son," says Tesori. "For Michelle and me, that touched our hearts like you can't imagine."
When Isaiah was diagnosed with Down syndrome, Watson set up an endowment to pay for future trips to the Special Olympics. (Simpson also contributed.) Last week Isaiah made the trip to Augusta. Simpson and Watson played the par-3 tournament together, and Tesori followed along toting his son, who was turned out in a white caddie jumpsuit. Uncle Bubba, as he likes to be called, fussed over Isaiah like he was his own little boy. "Having Caleb and Isaiah here, it's given Bubba something larger to play for," said Angie on the eve of the final round. "He has such a different perspective on life and golf. He knows what really matters, so it's freed him up to just go play and have fun with it. Even at the Masters."
AUGUSTA NATIONAL'S practice facility—driving range is far too pedestrian a term—has stadium seating for about a thousand spectators, and on Sunday afternoon the loudest roar came when Spieth arrived to loosen up. Early in the third round Masters fans had been chanting Bubba's name, but the apple-cheeked Spieth, bidding to supplant Tiger Woods as the youngest champion in Masters history, stole their affections with a rousing back-nine charge to play his way into the final pairing alongside Watson. This gave Sunday some much needed star power, since Phil Mickelson, an arthritic 43, had missed the cut at the Masters for the first time since 1997 and Woods, a high-mileage 38, was absent from Augusta for the first time since his '95 debut as he recuperates from back surgery. A 20-year-old golfing gentleman by way of Dallas, Spieth last year became the youngest PGA Tour winner in 82 years. "If he wins, it's huge for golf, it's huge for American golf," said Tour veteran Billy Horschel. "We need a player that everyone roots for, that everyone cares about. No matter what, they always follow Phil. They always follow Tiger. Jordan can be that guy too."
Playing in his first Masters, Spieth was so intimidated on Sunday that he birdied only four of the first seven holes. Watson dug deep to answer. After Spieth holed out from a greenside bunker at the par-3 4th, Bubba drained a five-footer for his own deuce. Typical of the day's sportsmanship, Spieth gave him a thumbs-up from across the green. After the kid knocked it stiff at the par-3 6th hole, Watson sank a 10-footer for a birdie of his own. Bedlam reigned at Augusta National.
Watson is happy to act the fool—he flashes a lot of chest hair as a hayseed in overalls in the Golf Boys videos—but there is a killer within. Spieth made soft bogeys at 8 and 9, and seeing his opening, Watson ruthlessly birdied both holes to take a two-stroke lead that he would never relinquish. Of course, Bubba being Bubba, there had to be a little drama. On the par-5 15th hole he pulled his drive into the forest on the left edge of the fairway, but instead of chipping safely ahead, he smoked a low 6-iron through an opening in the trees and over the pond fronting the green. For any other player it would have been a preposterous play, but Scott grudgingly gave his endorsement because Bubba had told him he would take a semiconservative line and aim for the greenside bunker. "But you know me," Watson said, sounding like a naughty schoolboy. "I wanted to get it a little closer to the pin, so I cut it a little bit without telling my caddie I was going to do that." The ball came to rest in a safe spot behind the green, and Watson salvaged an important par.
"It's Bubba Golf," Scott said. "Freak show."
After putting the finishing touches on his closing 69, Watson gave Spieth an avuncular hug and then scooped up Caleb. The Watson boys did a joyous victory lap around the 18th green, high-fiving the fans. Later, Bubba became emotional while talking about his desire to build golf's popularity. It's another way of giving back, because "the game has brought me everything," he says.
Simpson missed the cut at this Masters, so by Sunday evening Tesori was back home in Florida watching the finish on TV, tears streaking his cheeks as he cradled Isaiah. No one has a deeper appreciation for the evolution of the new king of Augusta. "Bubba has been so misunderstood," says Tesori. "I try to tell people, Remember what Phil was like. At 23 he was a little arrogant, and he rubbed a lot of people the wrong the way. At 33 he was appreciated more but still not widely accepted. Phil has not changed one bit in 20 years, but now at 43 everybody loves him. Bubba is going through the same thing. As he becomes older and a little wiser, people are starting to get what he's all about. And you know what, as big a talent as he is, his heart is even bigger. His legacy is only going to grow and grow."
"It's not golf," Crenshaw said. "It's different than that. It's like a symphony, a painting, sculpture. It's artistic impression."
"As he becomes older and a little wiser, people are starting to get what he's about," Tesori says of Watson.
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Photograph by ROBERT BECK SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
DOUBLE UP Watson was only one ahead when he reached the perilous 12th hole on Sunday, but after Spieth (in green) found the water, Bubba calmly carried Rae's Creek and stretched his lead to two shots with a par.
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (SPIETH)
NOT SO FAST Chasing history yet unfazed by the situation, Spieth (right) came out blazing with birdies on four of the first seven holes, but Watson had a pair of birdies himself and three times made par out of a bunker.
Photograph by ROBERT BECK SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
[See caption above]
Photograph by ROBERT BECK SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
FIRST, FAMILY The opportunity to celebrate with Caleb at 18 made Watson's second Masters victory even more special.