AUGUSTA, Ga. — Bubba Watson hunched over his ball for a half-minute. Below it, in the pine straw right of the 18th fairway at Augusta National, was part of a tree branch. On top of it were leaves. Behind him was a rules official. In front of him were a dozen trees. All of those elements worked together to leave him with just this:
We’ve seen Watson wonders before. It was here, remember, a decade ago, on the 10th hole, on the second hole of a sudden death playoff to win the Masters, that he hit possibly his greatest miracle, a hook from the straw that rolled to 10 feet and gave him the first of his two Masters victories. But what he conjured on Friday at the same event? It’s not hyperbole to suggest that it’s the best shot of the second round. But Watson thought it should go further.
“Nobody in the world would have tried that shot that I tried,” Watson said. “There’s nobody on the planet that would have tried it. We can sit here and they can tell me they would try it. There’s nobody that would have tried it. I don’t believe they could have pulled it off.”
Was it better than his 2011 magic?
“I’ll be honest, not that you want to know, but that was the best shot I’ve ever hit at Augusta National, that one right there,” he said.
So, yeah, it was that good. From 10 yards right of the ball, let’s watch. After his tee shot on the 465-yard par-4 banked off a tree and dropped down, Watson squatted down to think about clearing off the leaves around his ball. He stopped. Should his ball move, it’s a one-shot penalty, and at three over at that point and hovering near the cutline for the weekend, he couldn’t afford to take on more strokes. The official watched from a few yards back of Watson.
But wait, there’s more. Augusta wasn’t done. The wind blew, and the lie worsened. On top of his ball was now a leaf, too. Watson stepped back, told the official that “a leaf moved but not the ball,” was cleared of any infraction, performed the surgery to remove it and addressed his ball.
“I thought about trying to start moving some things around, but then, like I said, I’m three over at that point and not sure what the cut is going to be at the end of the day knowing that the wind is picking up, so I was thinking four over had a good shot at it. Five over has a really good — looking at it last night with the weather they’re predicting, I was thinking five over has a shot at it. Double bogey is what I was thinking in my head. That’s the worst I can make.
“I decided not to move anything. Then when I got over it for the first time, the leaf from about four feet away just literally blew right over top of my ball, and I was, like, are you kidding me?”
Of course, he still hadn’t actually hit the ball, which was measured at 171 yards from the hole. The dozen or so 100-foot-tall trees and their branches hadn’t gone anywhere, and a safe punch-out wasn’t much of an option, either.
Did he have a window? Technically, yes, but it required some moxie.
“Very high up probably the highest point of the trees there all I was trying to do was hit a wedge,” Watson said. “It’s teed up, right? If I hit a pitching wedge as hard as I can straight up, I thought I could hit that gap. I wasn’t looking at the green.
“I knew roughly the number, so trying to get to the fairway, so I have a chance for par. That’s what I was looking at. It came out. Because of that lie and because of the tree branch, because of the leaves — these were big, thick leaves — it caught a flier. It caught like a knuckler. It went straight up, and then a gust from the gods flew. It was a pitching wedge from 138 as high as I could hit it.
“And somehow it went a foot from the hole.”
Technically, two, but who’s counting. From the pine straw, with a tree branch under his ball, with leaves around it, with trees above it, Watson squeezed a wedge through all of it, his ball bounced just ahead of the green, and it rolled the rest of the way.
Neither Watson nor those of us 10 yards to his right knew until his playing partner, Tom Hoge, shouted out.
“I had no idea, and then Tom walking to the fairway said, it hit right of the green and went towards the hole at a slow pace. He said, ‘It might be really close.’ Then he got up there and said it was a gimme, and I said, ‘Man, those aren’t gimmes for me. I have to mark that thing.’ So I didn’t know until I got up there.”
Watson cleaned up from there for a birdie 3, and he’s two over heading into the weekend. Afterward, as he claimed the shot to be his greatest at Augusta, I had to ask:
Are you sure?
What about the one that won you the Masters?
“Well, yes. Physical shot, yes,” Watson said. “… I caught a flier, drew a pitching wedge. Hit it as high as I could hit it. Yeah, situation-wise, the hook was better, but I’m just saying physical golf shot.”
And what did you think, nearby patron?
“I can’t do that,” he said.