Expecting Bubba

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I didn’t see most of the Masters. This was my bachelor party weekend, such as it was, and at 10:10 on Saturday morning I checked in for my own tee time. The weather was note-perfect, and after a winter of the unrelenting opposite, the contrast was bracing and beautiful and great. I did not want to be indoors watching golf. I enjoyed it as much as I could for the first three hours, given the pain I earned the previous night, but I finally loosened up around the 12th hole. I parred the par-4 17th easily, which for a semiannual golfer like myself is pretty much turning in a 72 at the end of the day.

In the clubhouse, we refilled on proteins and beer and watched Bubba Watson ultimately hang on to a share of the lead he had earned the day before. The next table was full of college-aged kids, one of whom was the John Senden expert. “He’s such a great ball-striker,” he said over crosstalk, and when it died down, and he said it again the next time Senden stepped to his shot, which he hit into the rough. It was close enough to save face, though, so the guy said “Jeez, such a great ball-striker!” rather than dwell on the results.

Going into the final round, the one-day storyline concerned whether or not Jordan Spieth would become the youngest Masters champion ever, which he did not. Bubba Watson did what most everyone expected him to do, because he was the best golfer of the group and the one that had managed to hold a lead for the entire day without his good stuff. Everything made a strange sort of sense as it happened.

***

The mental gymnastics of golf and pitching have always felt similar to me, in that much of the game takes place in the mind. The difference is that pitchers are forced to get on with it much faster, which is symptomatic of baseball’s status as a young man’s game. In golf, you carry all your shit with you.

If it never really seemed like Spieth had a shot, even to me, it wasn’t because he would have become the youngest player ever to win the tournament, but because he would become the youngest player to win the tournament and also had never previously been heard from on a national level. People knew who Tiger Woods was going into the 1997 Masters, and then he throttled everyone. Spieth could have won, for sure, and he may well win at Augusta sometime in the future. But the fourth round of a golf tournament is about survival just as often if it’s about excellence, if not more often, and we know Bubba Watson is a survivor.

Spieth’s run was similar to Justin Rose’s charge at the 1998 British Open, followed by his impetuous decision to turn professional and enter a deep, prolonged slump. There’s no reason to think Spieth will have the same fate, and Rose won himself an exultant moment last year, when he won the U.S. Open. Simply put, what Spieth did was too hard to be pure dumb luck, even if it may not be repeatable yet on any sort of consistent basis. But it is the nature of golf to expose one’s potential in the most fleeting of instants. See, for instance, my par.

Now Watson is a two-time Masters champion, and it’s hard to believe that if Woods had been at Augusta National this year he would not have been favored. It’s also hard to believe, now, that Woods would be favored to beat Watson next year. We like to sound the death knells for eras long before they have actually passed—60 percent of all music is sold on CDs, by the way—but Watson's re-jacketing on Sunday may finally have ended the era of Woods-ian inevitability, and ushered in another. The game remains the game, and the game is cruel and difficult and unpredictable. But there was a sense, when Bubba put the jacket on again, of a great shift in expectation. Golf is golf, but things change.

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