Bubba Watson rekindles some magic lost, storms to lead at the Masters

Dan Wetzel
Yahoo Sports

AUGUSTA, Ga. – In 2012, Bubba Watson became the hottest thing in golf, winning the Masters with a miracle, savant-like hook from the pine straw of the 10th hole of Augusta National to win a sudden-death playoff.

The shot made no sense. Who'd even try it? Well, Bubba would, in part because he's never had a lesson or a coach, teaching himself the game in Bagdad, Fla.

It was too good a story. He wasn't a golfing hero as much as a folk. He rewarded himself by buying the "General Lee." He was a good ole boy, only one fully dedicated to his faith. He was, if nothing else, authentic in a sport where packaged is the norm, a character amidst a crowd of country club dull.

Bubba Watson was a star. Big things were expected. This was the start of something.

Then he immediately began to, well, kind of stink. He didn't win again in 2012. He didn't win at all in 2013. He finished 50th on his return to Augusta and didn't finish in the top 10 in his seven, post-green jacket majors.

Finally last fall he sat down and realized his career was a mess and he was, perhaps, bordering on some kind of one-hit-wonder status.

"When I looked at the FedEx Cup last year and [saw] how bad it was …" Bubba said of ranking 38th in the world. "When I looked at the Presidents Cup last year … and I wasn't there. You know, all of those things hit you."

On Friday, Bubba hit back, continuing a rebirth that included a win at Riviera earlier this year.

It came as the wind kicked up across Augusta National and the leaderboard grew stagnant. This was survive-and-advance territory as flags wrapped around themselves, sand blew out and up over bunker lips and, at one point, a patron's hat rolled across the 17th fairway like tumbleweed.

It was a moment of entertainment during a period when the best golfers in the world were just trying to bang out pars and avoid disaster.

Then there was Watson, who true to his unorthodox manner found a calm amid the literal swirl blowing around Augusta, a calm he'd been unable to find in his own life amid the figurative swirl of the last two years.

He reeled off five consecutive birdies here Friday, holes 12-16, a series of brilliant and bold approach shots that landed right near the pin, like a ridiculous 178-yard nine-iron on the par-3 16th.

It led him to seven-under for the tournament and heading into the weekend with the green jacket his to lose. He has a three-stroke lead on John Senden, who, unless you're from Brisbane, Australia, you've probably never heard of.

[Slideshow: Rory McIlroy finds some trees]

You never will if Watson keeps playing like this. And for what's it worth, Watson says he's mentally capable of doing just that. He says while he's never been drunk in his life, he feels confident that he understands what a hangover is, and his Masters hangover is officially cured.

"I was still celebrating my green jacket," he said of his recent drought. "How many green jackets you got? If you had one, you would celebrate it for a year or two.

"You've got to think about where I've come from," he continued. "My mom having two jobs to pay for my golf, my dad working in construction. 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."

Mostly Watson thought he could do it all and he could do it all even without saying no. Sponsors wanted more time, he gave it. New opportunities popped up, he took them on. Fans wanted autographs, he signed them.

"Yellow flags," he said with a sigh, referring to the traditional yellow flag atop Augusta National flagsticks. "I've seen enough of those. I really don't want to sign too many more of those yellow flags."

Then there was fatherhood. He and his wife Angie adopted one-month old Caleb just weeks before the 2012 Masters. Suddenly his professional life surged as demands on his personal time did also.

"Learning to be a good dad, learning to be a better husband, it takes time on you," he said. "It takes energy. And then learning to refocus, re-practice, get back to that level that I think I should be at.

"It drains you a lot more than you know." The everyman Southern name, the Dukes of Hazzard car and the hair flowing out from his visor makes Bubba seem like a bit of a wild man.

He isn't. He's uncomfortable in the spotlight, often unsure of himself socially. Last year's Masters were almost a panic, all the former champions talking to him, the champion's dinner all about him, the media focus greater as everyone asked about how he planned to win again.

What Watson says he's been able to do of late is get back into his old routine, only with greater focus. He's compartmentalizing things. His career, he realized, was at stake. The guy is an otherworldly talent, but no one is good enough to do it without dedication to the game.

"You're thinking you have the ability to do this; you have the ability to perform at a high level; you've done that before," Watson said. "You know, are you going to dedicate yourself? Are you going to practice?

"What I had to do was learn how to work more efficiently," he continued. "If that meant 30 minutes a day on the range or 15 minutes on the range and 15 minutes putting, that's what I need to do. … I just had to dedicate myself and be more efficient when I was practicing to get back to a level that I want to play at."

He arrived here playing well. He enjoyed sitting back and watching all the attention fall on 2013 champion Adam Scott. He felt the confidence that allowed he and pretty much he alone to look up as the Georgia pines swayed in the growing wind and make a move on everyone.

Bubba Watson is up three at the Masters.

The Old Bubba, that is, the one golf's been waiting to return.

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