It’s comforting to know in the 21st century that a genuine good-old-boy named Bubba, nicknamed as such because of post-womb chubby cheeks and hailing from a working-class part of the Florida panhandle called the Redneck Riviera, could grow up and win the world’s most prestigious golf tournament.
Which isn’t bad for a guy who still looks like a cherubic fraternity president at the University of Georgia and feasted on homemade burritos — never part of Tiger Woods’ breakfast of champions, I’m pretty sure — every night during the tournament. “Chicken with rice, beans and cheese. Just plain,’’ said Gerry Watson, he of the pink club shafts and the real tears and the wonderful back story that belies the rich-man’s sport he has mastered, at the Masters.
In maintaining his poise and shooting a 3-under 69, Watson fended off the early charge of 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who had threatened to become the youngest Masters champion and seemed ready for the part when he holed out from a bunker at No. 4. With the kid Texan protecting a two-stroke lead after seven holes and rallying a nation in the process, would Watson fade under pressure? Wasn’t that the knock on him last year, when he admitted to wilting amid the demands of his first Masters victory?
That quickly, life changed dramatically for both players. Rather than make history and soar as golf’s newest sensation, Spieth bogeyed the next two holes. And rather than hear cries of “choker!’’ in the backwoods, Watson produced two birdies. The tournament ended there. Experience trumped youth, and two hours later, there was Bubba again, slumped over his putter on the 72nd green, a champion again while joining six others — including Arnold Palmer, Ben Crenshaw and Jose Maria Olazabal — whose first two major victories happened at Augusta National.
“It’s overwhelming,” Watson said. “To win twice, to be with those great names. … A small-town guy named Bubba now has two green jackets. It’s pretty wild.
“This one’s a lot different. The first one, for me, it was almost like I lucked into it.”
This time, like the greatest of champions, he locked down the competition and made the back nine a drama-free event with his noted power game, including a whopping 366-yard drive on No. 13. Said Spieth, awakened to the realities of Sunday at the Masters: “That was fun, but at the same time, it hurts right now. I wanted to get in contention on the back nine Sunday, but didn’t come out on top.”
The first time Bubba tried on the green jacket, two years ago, he thought he’d found heaven. “You’ve got to think about where I’ve come from, my mom having two jobs to pay for my golf, my dad working in construction,” Watson said. “And when you think about that and where I am in my career and where I am in my family, my young family, you’re thinking about how great this was. Besides the Lord, marrying my wife and having our child, it’s right there, it’s fourth or fifth on the list. So when you think about that, it’s an accomplishment for a guy named Bubba, with my mom, my upbringing. My year, my career, was complete after that win.”
But the experience also drained him, even made him a little bitter after being bowled over by the hubbubba over his first victory. He tied for 50th last year and had a disappointing season. “As soon as you win, you get a green jacket on you. Every sponsor that you have, every company you represent, they want a piece of your time, they want more of your time,’’ he said. “And yellow (Masters) flags? I’ve seen enough of those. I really don’t want to sign too many more of those yellow flags. I think I’ve signed every single one of those since 2012.
“Media attention is on the defending champion. You’re asked all these questions: ‘Can you defend? How are you going to play? How are you going to do this?’ You have to give up the green jacket. So there’s a lot of things going on, media attention, when you’re defending champion. I didn’t know how to handle it the best way, and so I didn’t play my best golf last year.”
So this time, Watson drove down Magnolia Lane without much commotion. Adam Scott, last year’s champion, had the attention, along with Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson while everyone worried that Woods’ absence would turn the Masters into a downer. “I come in here with no media attention, just out there practicing,” Watson said. “It’s easier for me. Now I’m trying to get the jacket back. You’re not the man anymore. The Champions Dinner is not about you, it’s about Adam. I’m lost in the crowd, and I just go out and play golf the way I want to.”
While Mickelson, McIlroy, Scott and, in the end, Spieth all succumbed, Bubba was having a grand old time. “This one was a lot better for me and my nerves and my family,” he said. Not that we weren’t impressed by the kid.
This is what the Masters needed like an azalea begs for a sprinkler head, a 20-year-old prodigy who sees Woods as a geezer, thinks video games are so last decade and said he would refer to Watson — who looks and acts like a kid — as “Mr. Watson’’ on championship Sunday “just because it will mess with him.’’ Speith didn’t win, but his emergence atop the green leaderboard after the third round, with Watson, reminds us that golf eventually will separate itself from the thunder, fury and scandal of the Tiger Era and embrace new stars and stories. It wasn’t long ago when Spieth would fantasize in the front yard of his parents’ home in Dallas, where he would say to his brother, “This putt is to win the Masters.’’ Now, after seeing Augusta National for the first time in October, he nearly conquered the place.
Living the dream is what Woods did for a long damned time, making Augusta part of an unprecedented golfing romp that produced 13 major titles in 12 years. Other than one Tweet at 5:43 a.m Pacific time Thursday — “It never gets old watching the honorary starters tee off. One of the oldest and best traditions in the game,’’ he wrote — there was no evidence that he watched the weekend’s developments on television. How could he? Wasn’t he having convulsions after spending his last 20 Aprils in Georgia, helping the Masters define him while he helped re-define a sport?
For now, anyway, the Masters has survived without him. Spieth gave us a new angle. Watson gave us new adventures in Bubbadom. Maybe Tiger will even Tweet out props to the repeat champ, realizing that golf, like life, marches on.