Bubba Watson was almost an afterthought as recently as last month, but he was in the Masters discussion because a two-time champion needs to be in the discussion.
Five weeks and two wins later, the enigmatic Watson is dormant no more. He might even be a favorite at Augusta National after a 7-and-6 win over Kevin Kisner in the finals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play at Austin (Texas) Country Club.
“I’m a kid who happens to be 39 now,” Watson said. “Somehow I keep getting trophies and I don’t know how. It’s just a dream. I could never see this vision.”
It was the 11th win of Watson’s career and second of the season after his victory at last month’s Genesis Open. Now he’ll set his sights on another green jacket as he tries to become the ninth player to win the Masters three or more times.
Kisner reached the finals with a 19-hole victory over Alex Noren, who was 5-0 on the week entering the semis. He said his legs felt like Jell-O when the final round began and described his emotions throughout the round as “helpless” and “lonely.”
“It was just pitiful, man,” Kisner said. “I was trying to keep a good attitude, but it was tough. Just a long week and I was probably worn out a little bit and a little fatigued. Once it started going bad, no way to right the ship.”
Some of the other favorites faded quickly in Texas. World-ranked No. 1 Dustin Johnson, the top seed in the bracket and defending champion, bowed out after a shocking 0-3 finish in group play. Rory McIlroy also failed to advance to the round of 16 after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational last week. Jordan Spieth and Jon Rahm also missed match play.
No. 2-seeded Justin Thomas fared much better and reached the semifinals, in which he was defeated by Watson, 3 and 2. Thomas could have become World No. 1 for the first time by advancing to the finals, and that weighed on him. Heavily.
“I haven’t had such a hard time not thinking about something so much,” Thomas said. “That really sucked. I couldn’t stop thinking about it, to be perfectly honest. And I think you’re constantly getting questions about it with the media. But I need to be mentally stronger than that and understand that it’s just a match.”
Mentally stronger? This is the same guy who hit a perfect 217-yard 7 iron over the water on No. 17 at Quail Hollow to secure his first career major at the PGA Championship in August.
The fact that Thomas was crippled by desire to be recognized as the best in the world speaks to his competitiveness. His candor speaks to why so many fans think they can relate to the reigning 24-year-old PGA Tour Player of the Year. Most players in that situation would have said they weren’t even thinking about world rankings and were let down by their physical execution rather than their mental state.
That letdown seemed to carry over to the third-place match. Thomas missed several short putts and never really got into it during a 5 and 3 loss to Noren.
Thomas is on the short list of Masters favorites as well, but Watson’s chances are looking increasingly strong at a course where the left-hander can take on those right-to-left doglegs at holes No. 2, 10 and 13 with that looping, sky-high fade.
Few saw this coming after Watson’s 2017 season, in which he switched to a different golf ball and fell from No. 10 in the world to No. 73. We should know by now that with Watson, you have to expect the unexpected