Watson takes it easy despite hard Open course

June 16, 2007|By RICK MAESE

OAKMONT, Pa. — OAKMONT, Pa.-- --There was a point midway through the second round of the U.S. Open when you couldn't tell whether we were talking about a golf tournament or a Die Hard sequel. The dejected duffers were scorned, hurt and a little scared.

The course at Oakmont Country Club is "mean," they bellowed. And "treacherous" and "dangerous." Golfers were shocked at the "carnage" being scattered over western Pennsylvania.

Puh-leez. These pretty boys with pleats probably confuse The View with Ultimate Fighting, too. That's why it was so refreshing to learn after two rounds of the Open that a guy named Bubba was nearly leading the thing.

Bubba Watson has sideburns that drip down his jaw line. He's from Bagdad (population: 1,500) in the Florida Panhandle. While others out here have more coaches, advisers and therapists than an NFL sideline, Watson's only coach has been his dad (a man who struggles to break 90). Plus, he has used only one putter his whole life, has never won a major, never won a PGA tournament and doesn't have the game to be anywhere near the top of this leader board.

So the fact that he is one shot off the lead reminds us that regardless of the high scores and the endless moaning, everyone's facing the same opponent - a tough Oakmont course.

"I know I'm going to make many mistakes," says Watson, 28. "But if everybody else is making mistakes, now we're on an even playing field."

Through two rounds, he is one shot above par and one shot behind the leader, Angel Cabrera. He doesn't have time for any bellyaching because, frankly, it's a different sensation swimming deep inside. He anticipates having the same "sick feeling" for today's third round that he feels every time he steps on a course.

"I'm going to be just as nervous," he says, "and feel like throwing up the whole time."

That's exactly why the griping from others rings hollow. U.S. Open courses don't cater to the best, and they don't cater to the worst. They challenge every player in the field to hit it straight, to land near the pin and to putt consistently. Players act like they're on American Gladiators, when in fact, the task presented by the U.S. Golf Association is rather simple and admirable.

If anyone should be griping, it's Watson. He's the longest hitter in the field, playing a course that prefers the straightest. He leads the Tour off the tee this year and makes even Tiger Woods' jaw drop with some of the bombs that come off his driver.

"He's got so much talent," Woods says, "and if he would just understand how to play strategically."

Bubba and Tiger - sounds like the name of a children's book, right? - often play pre-dawn practice rounds together. Watson concedes that he's a bit "like a little dog chasing a bulldog. I'm just napping at his feet to see how he works and how he ticks," he says.

"[Woods] always talks about his wins and I always talk about how far I hit it," Watson says.

And when Woods starts going through the list of tournaments he has won? "Doesn't matter," Watson says. "You can practice and win tournaments, but you can't practice and hit it farther. That's what I always tell him. But he doesn't listen very much. He always talks about majors and all that stuff."

Wonder who's doing the talking this morning? Woods is at 5-over, as close to the cut line yesterday as he was the lead. And Watson? The guy who seemed to care only about the long ball has adjusted his game. The past two days, he's nowhere near the leaders in driving distance or accuracy. But he is the tournament's fourth-best putter through two rounds.

While other players seemed to be offended that the course wasn't bent to help them, Watson understood quickly that blasting wild 350-yard drives wouldn't necessarily get him closer to the hole. Yesterday, he walked up to the tee on the par-4 No. 14, standing 358 yards to the pin. He was facing downwind and could've driven the green one-handed.

"Think I should hit driver?" he asked his caddie, Ted Scott, half-serious. "I can get there."

Scott handed Watson a 6-iron. "I know you can get there," he said, "but this is what we're hitting."

Watson birdied the hole, one of four birdies on the day. At least he had that 6-iron in his bag. Back in Bagdad, he hates swinging anything other than his driver.

Probably unlike its distant Iraqi cousin, in tiny Bagdad, Fla., Watson's family never had to lock the door. When he was younger, all there was to do was golf. Watson's a lefty and learned from his dad, a right-hander, by watching him in a mirror.

"He says I quit listening to him about age 9," Watson says. "You know how parents get sometimes. But like now he'll try to call me and tell me what I did wrong because he'll see it on TV and I'm like, `Yeah, whatever.' "

Watson tees off as part of the final pairing today. Just like the night before, he says he's certain he'll have a hard time getting much sleep. "I'm like a kid," he says, unknowingly pointing out the real difference between the U.S. Open's whiners and its winners.

While others were complaining about the course these past couple of days, Watson was enjoying it.

rick.maese@baltsun.com

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