AUGUSTA, Ga. — Bubba Watson wanted to be a dad.
On that Sunday in Augusta two years ago, when he cried in his mother’s arms and slipped on the green jacket for the first time, Watson couldn’t stop thinking about his baby boy. Just weeks earlier, Watson and his wife, Angie, had adopted Caleb, a six-week-old, the culmination of a roller-coaster adoption process.
On that Sunday in Augusta, Bubba Watson had won the Masters for the first time. He was a self-taught golfer who had never taken a lesson or had a coach, the son of a mother who had worked two jobs to support his golf game. Now he was the Masters champ — and a father.
“When you think about that, it’s an accomplishment for a guy named Bubba, with my mom, my upbringing,” Watson says. “My year, my career was complete after that win.”
So maybe the slide was inevitable. It’s hard to maintain the same drive and desire after the dream shot hits. It’s hard to put the same sweat and dedication into practice. It’s hard to be father, too.
Watson didn’t win another tournament after that Masters in 2012. He didn’t win at all in 2013.
“I was still celebrating my green jacket,” Watson said here on Friday. “How many green jackets you got? If you had one, you would celebrate it for a year or two.”
Watson, 35, can say this with a smile now. By Friday afternoon, he was leaving the 18th green and heading toward the clubhouse with the Masters lead. Angie and Caleb were here to soak in the moment. For a day, he was back to playing Bubba Golf, the aggressive, no-holds-barred style that endears him to the crowds here in his adopted home state of Georgia.
On a picturesque Friday at Augusta, Watson blistered the back nine and finished at 7 under after shooting a 69. He took a 3-shot lead over Australian John Selden, while defending champ Adam Scott led a group of four players at 3 under.
During one stretch that started on the par-3 12th hole, Watson made five straight birdies.
“You can see why he’s had some success around here,” said Luke Donald, one of Watson’s playing partners on Thursday. “When he’s controlling his ball as well as he is right now, it’s going to be tough to catch him if he keeps playing like that.”
One year ago, Watson says, this would not have been possible. All the attention and adulation that came with the Masters victory left Watson drained. He had a newborn son, and a new-found fame. Bubba Golf was suddenly a viable brand in the golf world. Watson was the guy with the rags-to-riches story, and the personality to drive around in the “General Lee”, the car from his favorite show, “Dukes of Hazzard.” Fans loved him. One week, Watson can remember taking a trip to PING headquarters, one of his sponsors.
“I talked to every worker there,” Watson says, “signed 5,000, 10,000 (pin) flags.”
There were more trips like that. There were family obligations. His golf game suffered.
“Learning how to become a family man,” Watson says, “learning how to become a great champion, learning how to get back to practicing the right way and focusing the right way on the golf course — (it took) a lot of hard work to get back to this level.”
This year, Watson arrived at Augusta with a new plan. He rented two houses — one for himself and one for his extended family. He wanted to limit distractions and focus in on golf. He also talked of a “secret” strategy: Hit as many greens as possible.
“It’s not a science,” Watson says.
When Watson attended the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night, all the attention was on Scott, last year’s champ. That was perfect.
“I got to be just a bystander,” Watson says.
Watson, of course, played golf up the road at the University of Georgia. He grew up in Bagdad, Fla., a tiny little speck of a town in the panhandle. But he is at home here.
When he is rolling at the Masters, Augusta National can begin to feel like a classed-up Georgia frat party. The crowds roar. Watson struts.
It happened again on the 16th hole on Friday afternoon. After four straight birdies, Watson stood on the tee box of the 178-yard par-3 and knocked a 9-iron within a few feet of the hole. Minutes later, Watson drained the putt and casually strutted to the next hole.
“No big deal,” Watson would say later.
This was the old Bubba. Bombing drives. Hitting wedges right near the flagstick. A birdie machine rolling through Amen Corner.
“What I’m trying to do is go back to being a kid again and just rejoicing,” Watson says. “I’ve said this whole year is about rejoicing and thinking about, as a kid, you’ll be so excited to play on the PGA Tour for nine years. So when you hang your head because you shot 77 in the last round … it really doesn’t mean anything.”
Two days before Watson ripped through the back nine and took a stranglehold on the Masters, he was playing around with Caleb during the par-3 tournament. For Watson, it was the perfect kind of moment. The only thing more perfect, of course, would be Caleb watching his dad slip on the green jacket. This time, his son is here.
“As a kid, you don’t think about the bad days,” Watson says. “You always think about the great days. So for me, that’s what I have to look at, where I’m at in my life, where I’m at in my career. I’ve just got to keep grinding.”