AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Bubba Watson was strolling up to the ninth green, toward the Augusta National clubhouse and that towering oak tree, when he was struck by a fact that still seems a bit unreal.
He’s won the Masters not just once, but twice. “I can’t even believe it,” Watson told his caddie, Ted Scott, during a practice round. “I’m still trying to get over 2012, and I haven’t even got to 2014 yet.”
Yet here he is, a champion two of the last three years, now trying to become only the fourth golfer in Masters history to defend his title. It’s a very exclusive club, currently limited to three giants of the game: Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods.
Somehow, it just doesn’t seem right, not even to Watson, that a good ol’ boy from the Florida Panhandle, who taught himself to swing a golf club and approaches the game with a decidedly unconventional attitude, could even have a shot at joining such a list.
Bubba and the Golden Bear? Bubba and Sir Nick? Bubba and Tiger? C’mon, get real.
“How does a guy from my background make it?” Watson marveled. “How does a guy from my background actually win it, and then win it again?”
When he captured his first green jacket three years ago, it was with a daring hook off the pine straw on the second playoff hole. “Bubba Golf,” he called it, the sort of audacious shot most pros wouldn’t even consider, much less attempt.
Watson’s victory a year ago was much less dramatic, though no less impressive. He overcame a three-shot deficit to Jordan Spieth with back-to-back birdies at the eighth and ninth holes, was steady as can be on the back side, and pulled away for a three-stroke victory.
“To have the green jacket twice wrapped around me, I still can’t believe it,” he said. Not that it’s a fluke.
Watson’s unorthodox game sets up well for Augusta National. There’s only three holes, Nos. 1, 7 and 18, that give him some trouble off the tee. Most of the others are quite manageable for a left-hander who likes to cut it off the tee with that trademark pink driver and doesn’t mind taking some chances.
“All of the other holes look good to my eye,” he said. “The trees outline the fairway pretty good, so it’s easy for me to envision the shot I want to hit.”
While his game has never been better, Watson earned his seventh career victory at the World Golf Championship in November, was a runner-up this year at Phoenix, and comes into Augusta ranked third in the world, he remains a polarizing figure, a guy with an insular view of the world and not always a man of the people.
That reputation tailed him all the way to the Masters, when ESPN released a survey that showed he’s easily the least popular player among his fellow PGA Tour competitors.
Watson didn’t dispute that he’s had some “mess-ups” along the way. He said he hopes to use the criticism to become a better person.
“I take it as I need to improve as a man,” he said. “I need to get better. And I think over my career, since my rookie season to now, I’ve gotten better. But obviously there’s more room for me to improve as a man.”
There’s no lack of respect for his game. He’s clearly one of the favorites this week, a popular choice along with Rory McIlroy — who’s trying to complete a career Grand Slam, and rising star Spieth, someone clearly on the verge of winning his first major title.
“You can imagine what Bubba must feel like,” said Adam Scott, whose 2013 victory is sandwiched between Watson’s two titles. Augusta National “is seemingly made for his kind of game, and he’s playing nicely as well.”
Watson shrugged off those who would anoint him a favorite. But he conceded that he’s feeling a lot more comfortable defending his title this around, compared to the way it went down two years ago, when he broke par only once and finished in a tie for 50th.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” he said. “I mean, I’m scared to death of the Champions Dinner in ’13 because you’re talking about great champions across the board, old and young, and now I’m getting to sit and have dinner with them and I’m making sure they like the food I picked out. The media attention, the atmosphere, even a year later, you’re excited about your win. Sometimes you get away from your routine or you just use your energy in a different way. That’s what I did.
“This time, I know what to expect. Doesn’t mean I’m going to play better, just I know what to expect.” Watson would love to win a few more green jackets. If he doesn’t, there won’t be any complaints. “If I never win again,” Watson said, “it’s a good place to win twice.”
Copyright 2015 The Associated Press.