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One for the Money, Two for the Show
How ironic that one of the world's most exciting golfers should win such a dull Masters Tournament - perhaps the least exciting in living memory in fact. For three and a half rounds, the 2014 Masters had thrown up countless thrilling headlines and compelling stories.
But on the final afternoon, the lights seemingly went out, and Bubba Watson, of all people, sucked the excitement out of a tournament that usually guarantees a level of drama Shakespeare himself would consider far-fetched.
It wasn't really Watson's fault though. He did his part shooting a sound 3-under 69 - his third sub-70 score of the week - made possible with a handful of prodigious drives and a cunning shot through the trees from the left of the 15th fairway. The problem was no one could mount a decent challenge; his two nearest pursuers managing a single back-nine birdie between them.
It allowed Watson an easy passage to a three-stroke victory that few saw coming at the start of the day. When he beat Louis Oosthuizen by way of an absurdly brilliant wedge approach at the second playoff hole in 2012, no one said that was a fluke, as such, but no one said he'd be winning a second title quite so soon either, especially with Tiger Woods getting back to something like his best, Phil Mickelson becoming so adept at finding his best at Augusta National, and plenty of other good players about.
Bubba's ability to hit the ball an immense distance would obviously prove beneficial at Augusta. But a tendency to lose his poise, and a putting stroke that seemed a little fickle at times, was not a recipe for multiple green jackets. A third-round 74, during which he became noticeably tetchy and saw him lose the three-shot lead built following opening rounds of 69 and 68, was all the evidence some needed to predict a sad end.
Watson began the final day tied with the hugely impressive 20-year-old Jordan Spieth who, by opening with three sub-par rounds, had crossed off one of his goals for the season: to contend in a major. That seemed a little unambitious for the game's newest rising star, someone who had gone from world No. 809 to 22 in a single year.
But, as has become as apparent as his talent, Spieth is not cut from the same cloth as the more outspoken Patrick Reed. Spieth is modest and restrained - confident certainly, but not one to get ahead of himself and start making wild predictions.
On Sunday Watson set out with two pars, but went one behind the young Texan who birdied the second. A bogey at the third saw Watson fall two back, and when Spieth holed his shot from the bunker short of the fourth green, Watson fell three behind, momentarily.
Having hit a superb towering tee shot on the 243-yard hole, Watson was able to match Spieth's birdie, however, and the pair traded twos again at the short sixth - Watson holing a nervy 10-footer from the right of the green, and Spieth following him in from three feet.
It meant both players had hit four shots on holes the field was playing in 6.63 shots.
Despite their stellar play on the two front-nine short holes, Watson and Spieth hadn't quite shaken the field. Matt Kuchar was hanging around even if a four-putt double at the fourth derailed him slightly, and the feisty young Swede Jonas Blixt was looking remarkably comfortable for a rookie having equaled Spieth's feat of shooting three sub-par rounds to start his Masters career.
Fifty-four-year-old Fred Couples, one of six senior golfers to make the cut, was cobbling together another remarkable Masters performance and, with birdies on the two opening holes, had gotten to 3-under-par. Ricky Fowler was just three back at one point.
Spieth, though, looked like he was cruising. A bogey at the fifth might have unsettled the former Texas Longhorn, who opted out of college to turn pro part-way through his sophomore year. But he hit that remarkable tee shot to the par-3 sixth, then followed that birdie up with another at the 450-yard seventh where he holed a lightning-quick, right-to-left breaking putt for a three that took him to 8-under-par and two clear at the top of the leaderboard.
Perhaps this was the moment Watson would surrender. He hadn't done much wrong up to that stage, and was 1-under for the round himself, yet he found himself two behind this unflappable kid who just hit quality shot after quality shot, and never got upset on the rare occasion he didn't.
The par-5 eighth would surely come to Watson's aid though. Here, he could unleash his big pink driver, clear the insidious bunker on the right, and gain a considerable advantage over Spieth, who was 106 places and 28 yards behind him in this year's PGA Tour driving-distance stat.
Watson hit the drive he needed, but sent his approach over the green. Spieth, meanwhile, also missed the green in two, but gave himself a decent look at birdie. A four for Spieth certainly wouldn't have closed any doors - anyone who's ever watched the final nine holes of the Masters knows that. But it would have driven another nail into the coffin the Masters undertaker was busily preparing for Watson.
What happened next, however, would have a profound effect on how the rest of the round unfolded. Spieth three-putted, Watson holed for birdie - a two-shot swing that tied the scores and undoubtedly gave the 2012 champion the jolt of energy he needed.
Spieth appeared to shrug it off. And when he drove it beautifully down the pipe at the ninth, everyone assumed the previous hole a minor hiccup and he'd make it to the 10th tee with a one-shot cushion - Watson having sailed left off the tee - or tied for the lead at worst.
But no. Wanting to avoid the treacherous downhill putt from beyond the flag, the 2013 John Deere Classic winner, who Couples picked for his Presidents Cup team, eased up on his approach and suffered the same consequence as everyone else who ever hit a weak approach at the ninth. The ball landed short of the hole, checked up slightly, and began rolling back down the hill. Spieth pitched up, missed his par putt and recorded two straight bogeys that should never have happened.
In response, Watson hit one of his best shots of the day, stopping his ball just eight feet right of the cup. And when the folksy Floridian holed the nasty right-to-left breaker, Watson recorded another two-shot swing hole that sent him to the back nine two clear.
History, and a huge dose of misguided sentiment, suggested the Masters was supposed to start now. So much traditionally happens on the back nine, Moving Day at other tournaments becomes Moving Nine at the Masters, as competitors jostle for position over the opening nine holes before the fireworks of the back.
In reality, though, this year we had used up virtually all our annual allowance for fun and excitement. The glorious eagles and tragic "others'" that usually ignite Sunday afternoons just didn't happen. Spieth hit a wonderful approach to the 11th, but failed to convert the birdie putt. Then he committed his second big no-no of the round: coming up a half-club light at the 12th and watching in anguish as his ball rolled back into Rae's Creek. He did get up and down to salvage a bogey that kept him in the hunt, but Watson, far from allowing his emotions get the better of him, was beginning to look surprisingly stable.
And then came the drive: Watson's jaw-dropping 366-yard cannon at the par-5 13th that cleared the trees on the left and left him with a sand wedge to the green, dispelled any lingering doubt Augusta National sets up perfectly for the left-hander's high cut. "I thought it was out-of-bounds 70 yards left, and it's perfect," Spieth said afterwards. "And I guess he knew that when he hit it, too."
The course has long been known as a drawer's paradise, but that's for right-handers whose right-to-left shot tends to start out low and run uncontrollably upon landing. Watson's cut flies high, carries huge distances and is more manageable thanks to the cut spin. On holes that bend from right to left, like the second, fifth, eighth, ninth, 10th, 14th and, especially the 13th, it is an invaluable weapon. And when you can hit it as high as he does, the scary fourth hole becomes much less dangerous.
"This place suits him perfectly," said Fowler, one of Watson's best friends on Tour who was there to greet Bubba when he came off the 18th green. "I think of the shot he hit in the playoff a couple years ago. I was down there today actually, and I pitched out. He's able to hit golf shots around here that some guys can't. So this place fits him perfectly. It's fitting for him to win here."
Watson birdied the 13th to build a three-shot lead over Spieth - who could do no better than a par - and Blixt. The one bit of stimulation we were granted in the closing holes came at the 15th, where Watson over-cut his drive slightly, his ball finishing 340 yards down the hole but behind the stand of trees that cuts in from the left. Conventional golfers in possession of a three-shot lead with four holes to go would not even have considered the distance to the hole, deciding instead to pitch out safely for a 100-yard shot to the green.
But Watson saw a gap, and when Bubba sees a gap you can be sure he will try to breach it. With 190 yards to the pin, he gripped down on a 6-iron and, assuring his caddie Ted Scott he wasn't trying anything fancy, aimed for the bunker on the right. Watson couldn't resist a little late hand action though, and managed to divert his ball onto the green. David Feherty, commentating for CBS, was incredulous as was just about everyone else who saw it, including Scott, who you'd think has seen enough of this sort of thing to be surprised by anything his boss does.
"I've played golf with him probably 40, 50 times and every single time I play golf with him or watch him I just go, how do you do that?" said the caddie following the round. "I asked him on 18, after he hit the tee shot, 'Are you from Mars or something? Because I don't believe you can hit these shots that you hit.' "
The ball ran over the back of the green at the 15th, leaving a dicey chip that Watson didn't quite pull off. No worries, Spieth made a harmless par and Watson maintained his three-shot lead heading into the final three holes.
By now, the contest had become a match-play duel, though Blixt might have turned it into a three-man race with birdies on the 16th and/or 17th. And Spieth had, at last, begun to show the world he wasn't one big flat-line, although his overreactions to a few of his more disappointing shots upset some.
You could tell the Dallas youngster wanted to throw his club after an indifferent approach at the 10th, then he let out a strange squeal after pushing his tee shot at the 16th.
Those that didn't like it obviously forgot they hadn't been in contention for the Masters as a 20-year-old. Really, Spieth showed remarkable grace and maturity all week, furthering his fast-growing reputation. He is a credit to the game already, and one wonders how many major championships he will win.
A handful of prodigious talents, most notably Seve Ballesteros, said how they benefited from not winning a major too early in their career. You get the impression Spieth would have handled it just fine, however, counting it a natural step on the path to greatness.
But it wasn't to be . . . this time.
Seven players finished under par, including 50-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez, whose Saturday 66 was the round of the tournament. The Spaniard, making his Champions Tour debut this week, finished with three birdies in the last seven holes to haul himself up into fourth place, four shots behind the winner.
If only one of Watson's closest challengers had been able to summon something similar down the stretch.
Tiger Woods? Sure, he could have made it interesting, but he wasn't there. And the new two-time Masters' champion certainly didn't miss him.
"It's overwhelming," Watson said during the champion's press conference. "A small-town guy named Bubba now has two green jackets. It's pretty wild."
Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it extremely difficult for him to focus on Politics, his chosen major. After leaving Liverpool, he worked as a golf instructor at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a 'player.' He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. He is a multi-award winning journalist, and edits his own website at www.bellinghamgolfer.com.