Bubba Watson goes on birdie binge to lead Masters by three

Written By BY RICK MORRISSEY rmorrissey@suntimes.com | @MorrisseyCST Posted: 05/13/2014, 06:14am

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Of all the things that can smother a person, a green jacket wouldn’t immediately come to mind as an obvious instrument of suffocation.

You’ve won the Masters, wowing the crowd with a ridiculously daring shot on the second playoff hole, and you have a name, Bubba, that brings a smile to the face of anyone with a heartbeat. What could possibly go wrong?

Nothing, really. And everything.

Bubba Watson won that green jacket in 2012, then spent the next year basking in it and dealing poorly with it. There are worse ways to go through life than being a Masters champion who struggles afterward, but if you’ve been blessed with an excess of natural talent and a burning desire to win, it can start to seem like a big waste.

Two words describe Watson’s drop from fifth in the 2012 FedEx Cup rankings to 38th in 2013: perfectly understandable.

“I was still celebrating my green jacket,’’ he said in response to a reporter’s question Friday. “How many green jackets you got? If you had one, you would celebrate it for a year or two.’’

Trust me, if a sportswriter won a green jacket, he’d celebrate by buying purple pants to go with it.

Watson has moved on, sartorially and athletically, as a five-birdie stretch Friday proved. It propelled him to a 68 and a three-stroke lead over John Senden after two rounds of the Masters.

Bubba on a birdie binge? Beautiful.

The good ol’ boy from Bagdad, Fla., storming through Augusta National again? This could get good.

Last year at this time, Watson was still holding court as the defending Masters champion. That meant news conferences and the traditional champions dinner. It meant being pulled in every direction on the compass. He was not equipped to handle it. Nobody is, really, but he perhaps more than most. He finished tied for 50th.

“You’ve got to think about where I’ve come from,’’ he said. “My mom had two jobs to pay for my golf. My dad worked in construction. When you think about that and where I am in my career and where I am with my young family, you think about how great this was.

“… So when you think about that, it’s an accomplishment for a guy named Bubba, with my mom, my upbringing. My year, my career was complete after that win.’’

The upset would have been if Watson had handled all the obligations of being Masters champion with aplomb and had a better year in 2013 than he did in 2012.

This year? This year felt like a burden had been lifted.

“The champions dinner was not about me,’’ he said. “I could enjoy [it] this time and listen to some of the stories. I was in awe when I was the champion, when it was my dinner. You’re sitting there amongst the great champions that are in there. This year, I got to be just a bystander, just one of the guys.’’

He is not one of the guys. He has never been one of the guys. He has never had a swing coach and never had a lesson, a rarity in a sport as neurotic as golf. Most of these pros view self-help the way doctors view bloodletting.

But look at the self-made man now. On Friday, he reduced Holes 12 through 16 to embers. The two par-5s were not a surprise. He’s a long hitter, and every par-5 has a come-hither look for him. The other holes at Augusta play a little more hard-to-get. No problem. He made a long putt on the par-4 14th that broke left like an Indy car.

Afterward, someone asked him to offer an example of his athleticism. He said he hit a nine-iron 186 yards Thursday.

“I guess that’s all right,’’ he said.

Yeah, that’s all right.

By definition, a guy named Bubba is corndogs, muscle shirts and carnivals. Augusta National is supposed to be about exclusiveness and exclusion. What’s wrong with this picture?

But somehow it all works perfectly. On Friday, the fans were tickled that he was back in the lead, but not as tickled as he was.

“What I’m trying to do is go back to being a kid again and just rejoicing,’’ he said. “I’ve said this whole year is about rejoicing.’’

In other words, don’t be so hard on yourself when you have a bad round. Enjoy what you’ve done. Envision the good things ahead.

And whatever you do, forget about 2013.

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