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Bubba has Finesse and Power

He needed more than his long driving to win the Masters

Posted Apr 09, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

Charlie Riedel/AP Photo

It was in Hawaii in 2006 that I first set eyes on Bubba Watson. The circumstances were remarkable in a number of respects, not least among them being the sight of a group of elderly, oriental enthusiasts playing so-called Ground Golf in a public park near Waikiki Beach.  I was to discover that this Japanese-invented pursuit is highly organised in the Honolulu area.

The equipment is a wooden club in the shape of a putter but with a considerably larger head, which strikes an object about the size of a tennis ball.  Unlike croquet, the stroke is made in the conventional, golfing way and balls can be teed up and hit in the air. Holes range from 50 to more than 100 yards and the target is a wire contraption, not unlike a bird-cage sitting on the grass, with openings through which the ball is slotted and where the sound of chimes, signals success.

Some way down the road in the Sony Open at Waialae Country Club, the exploits of Watson could not have offered a more dramatic contrast to this gentle pastime.  Hailed as the latest sensation to hit the PGA Tour, he was smashing the ball incredible distances on his way to fourth place in the tournament.    

Watson was then 27 and with 14 stones packed into his 6ft 3ins frame, he was about a stone heavier than the man who became the third left-handed player to capture the US Masters on Sunday.  Back in Hawaii, he was a graduate of the 2005 Nationwide Tour where, hitting a power-fade, he averaged 367.3 yards in one particular tournament - as he did on occasions in the Sony - and 334 for the year.  John Daly played pat-a-cake golf by comparison with the so-called "White Orangutan".

One of his more memorable exploits at Waialae was to reach the 561 yards 18th with second shots ranging from lob-wedge to pitching wedge over the four days.  Indeed his closing eagle on the Sunday was the product of a drive, wedge and five-foot putt.  Elsewhere, the 466-yard fifth was reduced to a two-iron, nine-iron and at the 353-yard 10th, his drive landed 15 yards from the green.

His playing partner, Fred Funk, claimed to have been outdriven by 140 yards and another fellow professional, Jim McGovern, recalled: "I played with Bubba in Utah, and we had to wait on every par-four because he could reach the green. It was funny. Even if he had the honour, I'd go first."

Ian Baker-Finch, the 1991 Open champion who was on the CBS commentary team last weekend, happened to be in the offices of the Nicklaus organisation in West Palm Beach during a visit I made there a week later. Considering the Watson phenomenon with obvious concern, he said:  "In 10 years, there will be guys of 6ft 3 and 220lbs who will totally finish the game of golf as we know it.  By hitting the ball 360 yards in the air, the Bubba Watsons are going to destroy golf courses and shotmaking."

When Jack Nicklaus joined us, the Australian pointed out that the Bear had been warning of this for years.  "There will be no more Corey Pavins," Baker- Finch remarked.  Then Nicklaus chimed in: "And there will be no place in the game for a man with the skill and commitment of Gary Player.  Imagine not being able to accommodate the winner of nine major championships?  You could also rule out Hogan.  All that skill being destroyed by power!"

He went on: "I played quite a few times with Hogan, including the last round of the 1960 US Open when Arnold (Palmer) won and in the 1966 Masters when I won.  Sure, I outdrove him, but in those days length was only a part of the game.  Now, it IS the game."  Nicklaus pointed out that in his pomp, he was using a driver weighing 13 1/2 ounces, compared with 12 ounces nowadays and with a 41-inch shaft, compared with 44 or 45 inches.  "Guys nowadays can hit it miles, but they've got no game," he said.  

That was six years ago and instead of Bubba Armageddon, we have Bubba, Masters champion. In fairness to the Bear, he wasn't targeting Watson, with whom he was not familiar at that stage, it was simply an expression of concern about power destroying finesse in the game he loves. But even then, Watson had a reputation among his contemporaries as a player of considerable skill, who could shape shots at will.  Indeed a childhood friend remarked: "Bubba's liable to hit a 10- or 15-yard hook with his lob wedge or a 30-yard cut with his driver."  

We saw some stunning examples of this creativity at Augusta National last weekend, especially in Watson’s four successive birdies from the 13th to the 16th during the final round.  And again, in a remarkable second-shot from trouble to the right of the 10th, the second play-off hole, which effectively killed the Masters aspirations of Louis Oosthuizen. This was a wedge of 164 yards which was hooked 40 yards around a grove of trees and a TV tower onto the green.

Indeed the stunning, individual quality of Watson’s overall play, has been matched in recent years by only one other Masters winner.  And he happens to be the most celebrated leftie of them all, Phil Mickelson.

- Dermot Gilleece

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