Old habits die hard. Or, in the case of Bubba Watson, not nearly hard enough.
At the PGA Championship, the two-time Masters champ is having a driving week for the ages — seeing major gains in both distance and consistency off the tee at a blustery (and decidedly toothy) Southern Hills setup. Through two rounds at the PGA, Watson has gained close to two-and-a-half strokes off the tee, averaging 355 yards per drive while finding 75 percent of his fairways.
These are tremendous numbers — a blend of consistency and performance the 43-year-old has been seeking for years. And the kicker? They came after he (finally) elected to trade out one of the oldest components of his bag — his driver shaft — in favor of a newer, whippier, lighter option.
On Friday, the new shaft played a key role in one of the best driving rounds of Watson’s career. Even as winds whipped throughout the property at Southern Hills, Watson worked the ball around with ease, driving fairway after fairway en route to the low round of the day, a 7-under 63.
But the most impressive drive of Watson’s Friday was the only one that didn’t wind up the fairway. And the reason? Because Watson was striking it so good, he hit it into the rough intentionally.
The drive came on the 13th hole, a monster par-5 that’s played as a three-shot hole for most of the field at the PGA. According to Watson, the decision to aim for the rough was driven not by strategy, but rather by mentality. With 17 and 18 — two of the toughest holes on the golf course — still ahead, Watson had simply been striking it too well. It was, in his estimation, a recipe for disaster.
“It was funny, I told my caddie on 13, I told him I was going to hit it in the rough because I wanted to get that out of my head,” Watson said. “I hadn’t missed a fairway yet, and I didn’t want to go to 17 or 18 having a chance to hit every fairway.”
So, Watson and his caddie Gabe Sauer hatched a plan to aim for the thick stuff.
“I was like, ‘we need to go ahead and hit it in the rough,'” Watson said. “We can’t get to this par-5 in two anyway, so I just tried to hit it in the rough over there to the right and then chip it down the fairway.”
I was like, ‘we need to go ahead and hit it in the rough.’
And so, that’s exactly what Watson did, hitting a 317-yard drive down the right rough, then dropping his second shot into the fairway 130 yards from the flagstick. From there, the 636-yard par-5 was easy work.
“Chipped it down and still made birdie, so it worked out good,” Watson said with a laugh.
As for the overarching strategy — that worked out too. Watson hit fairways on both No. 17 and 18, playing the two-hole closing stretch at 1-under.
On Saturday at the PGA Championship, Watson enters with a legit shot at the lead. Well, so long as that’s where he’s aiming.