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Loran Smith: Bubba Watson energized by strong first round

GULLANE, Scotland — Bubba Watson remains golf’s “Sultan of Swat,” which endears him to galleries even over here, those with affection for the bump-and-run game and an unending proficiency for the ultimate in course management. Golf aficionados in Scotland, the birthplace of the game, know the importance of finesse and touch, but Bubba’s bombs-away game intrigues them.

Thursday, however, Watson only used his driver once in the opening round, finishing with a 1-under par 70. He was matter-of-fact and nonchalant but energized by his score.

“Anytime you shoot under par in a major championship, you are always happy,” he smilingly said afterwards.

The former Georgia golfer’s prodigious power gave him an advantage in winning the 2012 Masters, where founder Bob Jones decreed that there would be wide fairways and no rough — although he, a pure and accurate striker of the ball, played with considerable length for his time. All of which makes the Augusta National unique. Once, in his prime, Lee Trevino said in a practice round at Augusta, “If they had rough around here, I would’ve won this thing five times or more.”

Watson doesn’t want to be remembered a one-major wonder, but a reasonable synopsis of his performance since April of 2012 — roughly 14 months ago — is that he needs more than Bunyan-esque power to collect titles on the PGA Tour, especially when it comes to the majors. He is an advocate of links conditions, and while it would be special to end up with the claret jug on Sunday, the major he most wants to win is “the next one.” Give him high marks for his attitude.

He was exempt in four categories coming into the Open championship, he is ranked 43rd in FedEx cup standings, the barometer of performance on the PGA Tour, and he has had enough productive paydays to have banked $1,347,845 in winnings alone in a little more than half a season. Since 2006, his annual golf course earnings have been over $2,420,000. He doesn’t have to worry about his Visa card bills.

There is some very good latent news that carries a noticeable asterisk: He has made 12 of 14 cuts and has three top-10 finishes. The telling statistic is that the fourth round has not been good to Bubba the Blaster, this year. Take the U.S. Open at Merion in June as an example. He entered the final round tied for 23rd position but shot 76th to finish in a tie for 32nd. He has had four rounds of 75 or worse on Sunday. He has no explanation, only taking a philosophical stance: “Those things sometimes happen, but it is better to make a high score in the final round than the first, which might mean that you missed the cut.”

Now living at Isleworth (the club built by Arnold Palmer) in Orlando, Fla., Watson’s assessment of his game is that he has been playing well but has not been able to gain any momentum, owing to having to cope with illness in the first of the year, which saw him suffer from two bouts with the flu.

Playing in what he rated the “calmest conditions” of the week, he also believes Muirfield offered the toughest first round conditions he has ever seen in Open play.

“If the course,” he concluded, “dries out any more there will be a lot of firm and fast fairways and greens. The ball will run into a lot of trouble.”
That, he noted, could make scoring more difficult as the week wears on.

When asked about distractions, which came from appearance and commercial opportunity by winning the Masters, he explained that has not been a problem.

“The only distraction was dealing with a new son [Caleb]. When you are dealing with a child and trying to be a good father, that is more important than winning golf tournaments. He is the only distraction that I have had and that is a good one to have.”

Often, he and his good friend Ricky Fowler share residences at major championships, they are big in Bible Study, and have great affection for music. There is affection, too, for good starts in major championships. It is a four-round event, and Bubba knows one good round doesn’t necessarily beget another.

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