The last time we saw Bubba Watson win, it was in the gloaming, at Augusta in 2012, after one of the great shots in Masters history, and he wept and wept and we all learned how he and his wife, Angie, could not conceive a baby and had just adopted their first child and now he was a Masters champ the very week they brought young Caleb home and it all seemed too wildly good and happy to be true.
Flash forward nearly two years, to Sunday at venerable Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, and there was Bubba winning for the first time since then, and there was little Caleb, the adopted boy who is their son, nearly 2-years-old, cuter than cute could possibly be, in his Mommy's arms, shouting "Yay, Daddy!" when his old man capped off a 64-64 weekend at one of America's great golf courses.
You think Bubba was the only one a little misty-eyed?
It's OK, golf fans. You can dab at the corners with a hanky. I'll wait a moment.
OK, we're back.
It was all heartwarming enough to overlook Bubba's too-often bouts of temper on the golf course. We'll get to that later. Instead, let's focus on Watson cashing in on that enormous talent for the first time in 22 months; that ability to create any shot he looks at, to drive it further than anyone in the field (as he did at The Riv) and to putt with the nerve of a champion.
He said he went back to his old putter, and brought in new irons for the first time in 10 years. It worked, because he nearly won at Phoenix two weeks ago, betrayed only by his driver, his putter and his nerves down the stretch, missing by one stroke. You wondered if Bubba was putting too much pressure on himself, but then he comes back with one of the great weekends in Riviera history, a Saturday 64 chased by a Sunday 64, no bogeys along the way. His highlights included a hole-out on the par-3 6th from the bunker, part of making birdies on the two iconic par-3s on Riviera's front nine – golf that Nick Faldo deemed "cheeky." He also birdied the last, Riviera's famed No. 18, and now we're talking history.
In the annals of the game, only 11 men can say they've won at both Augusta National and Riviera, and the first three to do it were named Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Byron Nelson. So, there's that. Add some chumps named Tom Watson, Fred Couples, Craig Stadler, Nick Faldo, Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson and you've got august company. The only name that stands out as perhaps incongruous is Mike Weir, since the Canadian has only won twice since his 2003 Masters, but the lefty has eight PGA Tour wins, including a Tour Championship and a WGC American Express to go with two wins at Hogan's Alley, so who am I to say he doesn't belong?
Now, Bubba Watson joins that group. Perhaps more important, he revives his game heading into majors season. Not everybody rolls like Tiger Woods in his prime, ripping off major wins as if marking off 'to-do' lists: Pick up dry cleaning, win Masters, call electrician, win U.S. Open, clean bathtub, win British Open. . . .
Sometimes, players win majors and it affects their life, their focus, their game. It puts pressure on them. They put pressure on themselves. They change. Just ask David Duval. Add in the new chapter of parenthood for Angie and Bubba Watson and their worlds have changed a lot in the last two years. Maybe that's why Bubba hasn't won. Maybe only now is he ready.
Judging the look on Bubba's face when Angie handed him little Caleb on those steps above the 18th green at Riviera, he's ready.
SCORECARD OF THE WEEK
Mother Nature d. Eisenhower Tree, 1-up, Augusta National Golf Club.
There were some who surmised the late Augusta National chairman Clifford Roberts was more powerful than God at the home of the Masters. He was more powerful than the leader of the free world, that's for sure, and now it's taken an act of God to finally veto Clifford Roberts.
On Augusta National's 17th fairway is a pine tree that has often interfered with tee shots that strayed to the left side of the fairway. Famously, Tiger Woods strained his Achilles there in 2012 trying to hit an awkward recovery shot under it. Jose Maria Olazabal punched a 5-iron under it to preserve his 1999 road to a green jacket.
An even bigger name – former U.S. president and five-star general Dwight D. Eisenhower, whose more important title was 'member' at Augusta National – campaigned often to have the tree removed. Roberts, however, famously rejected Ike's appeals, and even adjourned a meeting once, reportedly, when Ike tried to bring it up. One has to wonder who had more power over Dwight Eisenhower – his wife, Mamie, or Clifford Roberts himself.
Anyway, the huge ice storm that has ravaged the South finally did what Ike couldn't do: it brought down the pine known as the 'Eisenhower Tree.' In a statement from club president Billy Payne, reported by the Augusta Chronicle's Scott Michaux, he called the damage to the tree "…difficult news to accept. We obtained opinions from the best arborists available and, unfortunately, were advised that no recovery was possible."
Can you imagine being the arborist called to that case? Just you, Billy Payne and the ghosts of Eisenhower and Roberts hanging around while you, an arborist, convince America's most famous golf club to take down its most famous tree. That's some juice. You have to wonder if the arborist hemmed, hawed, delivered the news, then said to Payne: "Hey, could I sneak in a quick nine?"
Payne says the club has "begun deliberations" about the future of the 17th hole and how best to "pay tribute to this iconic symbol". The mind reels with possibilities: A beautiful cypress tree, for generations to admire? Maybe a historic tribute, like glass-enclosed diagrams of how Eisenhower made snowman on the 17th hole through the years? Perhaps more coarsely, a cardboard cut-out of Clifford Roberts, flying half the peace sign?
Your move, ANGC.
MULLIGAN OF THE WEEK
All praise to Jimmy (The Kid Dy-no-mite) Walker, who won twice on the West Coast Swing and three times already this year – he even finished a respectable tie-20th at The Riv – but the West Coast Swing was missing a big-name duel in 2014.
Scott Stallings, Patrick Reed, Kevin Stadler are all worthy champions, but none moves the needle. So it was fun to see Bubba Watson and Dustin Johnson lock horns down the stretch at Riviera, two multiple-winners, two Ryder Cup guys, two top-30-ranked players in the world (Johnson 11th entering Riviera, Watson 26th).
And it would have been simply awesome TV golf if they had gone to a sudden-death playoff head-to-head, playing Riviera's famous 18th and, if we were lucky, to play the devilish, exasperating, exhilarating 10th hole.
It was looking like a possibility, too. After Johnson birdied the 15th hole, he was within one shot of Bubba, and coming to the par-5 17th, too. For a monster like Johnson, par-5s are like something he picks out of the back of his teeth with a toothpick, a trifling, a small nuisance. He owns them.
Coming to No. 17, Johnson had made birdie in nine of the 11 par-5s he'd played at Riviera this week, and birdied No. 17 on Saturday. You figured he'd birdie 17 again, and pull into a tie and it'd be on. He took a mighty swipe at his tee shot, too, and Ian Baker-Finch noted that even by Johnson's athletic standards, it was a back-strainer.
His second shot was a 4-iron that he overcooked, and it left him a tough third, a pitch from a bad lie that he could not get close to the hole. What seemed a sure birdie and a tie for the lead with Bubba at the par-5 17th instead dissolved into a routine par that effectively killed Johnson's chances at the win. He'd have to settle for a second consecutive runner-up, matching last week at Pebble Beach, despite a Sunday 67 at Riviera.
So, in the interest of a great Bubba v. Dustin smackdown at Riviera, in the interest of a pyrotechnic-filled end to the West Coast Swing, let's go back out to 17, remind Dustin Johnson that his second shot is critical for a good look at the flag, give him that 4-iron all over again, remind him that Paulina Gretzky would look oh-so-Hollywood running onto the green if he won and . . . give that man a mulligan!
BROADCAST MOMENT OF THE WEEK
"There's not much that Bubba misses. If you take a deep breath, he's going to call you out." – Jim Nantz, CBS, after Bubba Watson once again pouted towards the gallery after a shot.
"If you change your mind, he's gonna hear you." – Nick Faldo, CBS, doubling down on Watson's 'rabbit ears' issue.
OK, so this column was super nice to Bubba in the lead item, and praised his touching win. Now, we take out the knives.
This has been, and is perhaps becoming even more of, a problem. Bubba Watson has so many likeable qualities on the golf course – prodigious distance, unorthodox creativity, and the name 'Bubba' primary among them. And he wears his emotions on his Kleenex, too. He cries at a Vermeillian rate, shedding tears when he's asked for his breakfast order in the players' lounge.
Plus, the Golf Boys videos! Any player with his fingerprints on those musical gems that give Miley Cyrus videos a run for their money has got some serious positives.
But as the years have gone on, Bubba seems to have grown more temperamental towards what he perceives as extracurricular noise. Sometimes, it's not even extracurricular noise that ticks him off. Sometimes, it's his caddie, whom he's not afraid to publicly chastise for misreads, including most recently at Phoenix when Bubba missed a makeable putt to get into a playoff. That's never a good look when the multi-millionaire player with a green jacket belittles the guy who has to carry his clubs and wipe 'em clean, too.
Even on his opening tee shot on Sunday at Riviera, Bubba took the opportunity to whine at a gallery member, ruining a perfectly good Sunday morning vibe at The Riv. He did it again on the 9th tee, and then again before his second shot on No. 9, which is when Nantz and Faldo reacted.
While we understand these artistes require stone silence to practice their craft, a little mental toughness not might be the worst add to a player's game.
Yo, Bubba – keep making birdies, only with less whining. Deal?
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
Even though the Accenture Match Play at Dove Mountain in Arizona is considered part of the West Coast Swing, I consider the 72nd hole at Riviera the end of the Swing. It is there where we leave the great state of California behind with a heavy heart.
Goodbye, mesmerizing paragliders over Torrey Pines; goodbye playful sea otters in Carmel Bay; goodbye, legendary ghosts at Riviera; goodbye, slurring, pie-eyed fraternity bros at the 16th hole at Scottsdale . . . whoops. Sorta lost that romantic thread there. That's why this column prefers California over the rest.
Match Play at Dove Mountain will bring its usual spate of upsets, and most likely bring us a champion who is a level-headed, top-20-in-the-world player who hasn't won a major, but is able to outlast everyone else through the mundane and repetitive act of fairways and greens, fairways and greens and, when in doubt, more fairways and greens. Yes, I'm talking to you Matt Kuchar, Hunter Mahan and Luke Donald, the last three winners of the Match Play.
If you're looking for thrills and chills from Phil – he is not playing. If you're looking for the grace and class of Adam Scott – he is not playing. If you're looking for Tiger to get upset by some no-name in the first round – he is not playing. Instead, the top 4 seeds will be three Euros – Henrik Stenson, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy – and a Yank, Zach Johnson.
Should be a treat to see young Rors make his 2014 stateside debut. He's already made news with a 2nd place at Abu Dhabi and a Sunday implosion at Dubai, a final-round 74 when his fiancée Caroline Wozniacki violated every golf fan's space bubble by walking inside the ropes with her dude, a bad look and a bad result for Rory. Note to Match Play marshals – make sure Wozniacki has proper media credentials and keep her an arm's length from the ropes at all times. Oh!