Being mired in a long slump that had him contemplating retirement – and seemingly distracted by celebrity duties – was not enough to keep Bubba Watson from history, as the enigmatic, long-hitting lefty added a 10th win to his career resume, winning by two strokes at the Genesis Open.
An awe-inspiring hole-out birdie on the par-3 14th hole was undoubtedly the final-round highlight for the 39-year-old Watson, who nabbed his third career victory at the Los Angeles-based event, which matches the hat trick of wins by legends Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan.
Watson went viral for the wrong reasons on Friday when he got rejected emphatically by Tracy McGrady at the NBA’s celebrity All-Star game. But that bruise to his ego did not prevent him from reaching 12 under at famed Riviera Country Club, finishing two strokes clear of Kevin Na and Tony Finau.
FINAL TOP 10
1 Bubba Watson -12
2 Kevin Na -10
2 Tony Finau -10
4 Scott Stallings -9
4 Patrick Cantlay -9
6 Phil Mickelson -8
6 Adam Hadwin -8
6 Cameron Smith -8
9 Jordan Spieth -7
9 Justin Thomas -7
9 Xander Schauffele -7
9 Ryan Moore -7
9 Martin Laird -7
14 James Hahn, Aaron Baddeley -5
16 Alex Noren, Dustin Johnson -4
20 Rory McIlroy -3
26 Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell -2
37 Branden Grace, Tommy Fleetwood -1
41 Bryson DeChambeau, Pat Perez E
49 Brendan Steele, Paul Casey +1
53 Adam Scott, Haotong Li +2
60 J.B. Holmes +3
64 Padraig Harrington +5
68 Thomas Pieters, Charl Schwartzel +7
73 Vijay Singh, Chez Reavie +8
HOW BUBBA WATSON DID WON
Once a mainstay in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Rankings, Bubba Watson had fallen out of the top 100 entirely, dropping to No. 117 in the world.
After a 6-under 65 in the third round, his lowest round on Tour since the 2015 FedExCup Playoffs, Watson held the the 54-hole lead for the first time in two years. And being paired with two young stars in Patrick Cantlay and Cameron Smith was not too much for the two-time Masters champion, as a smooth 2-under 69, highlighted by a 3-under bogey-free back nine was all he needed to capture the tournament title.
It wasn’t a total breeze, however, as three front-nine bogeys put Watson’s best championship opportunity in recent memory in jeopardy.
But he calmed down on his back nine, and a chip-in birdie from a greenside bunker on the par-3 14th hole gave Bubba a two-shot advantage and much-needed confidence coming down the stretch. After a birdie on the par-4 17th, a par-save on the 18th was more than enough to hold off his challengers.
“I’ll be honest, I aimed it somewhere to the right of the hole on 18. I was trying to lag it, I wasn’t trying to make it. Just tap it in real fast to win,” said Watson. “Could care less about winning by two or one.”
He won by two. And with five birdies for the fourth-consecutive round, Watson’s 20 tournament birdies placed 2nd in the field, and a phenomenal Sunday putting performance helped offset relative troubles hitting his greens (9 of 18 GIR).
WHAT IT MEANS FOR BUBBA
More than anything else, the Genesis Open triumph means that Bubba is relevant again. After winning the 2016 edition of this tournament, Watson was mostly absent from late-round leaderboards.
Just two top 10s over the rest of 2016 shockingly left him on the outside looking in for the Ryder Cup, where he had to settle for serving as a vice-captain.
“The last two years, if you think about it, let’s go back — even back to the Ryder Cup, I was seventh in the world, didn’t get picked for the Ryder Cup, which I shouldn’t have,” said an emotional Watson.
“Ryan Moore played unbelievable for the Playoffs. It was a thrill of a lifetime to be vice captain. I would do it in a heartbeat again if someone would let me.
“So from that downfall of the letdown of not making the team and then to get sick, to lose all this weight, just family drama of my son starting school, my wife having surgery, five screws and a small plate in her leg, just all these things added in, never knowing if you’re going to make it again.”
The 2017 season was even more difficult as Watson slumped badly over the final three months, following a poor Sunday (73) at The Memorial in early June. The disappointing performance sent Watson into a tailspin where he would not see a top 10 again until the Northern Trust in September.
In 2018, Watson failed to post better than a T35 in any of his first five tournaments before familiar surroundings at Riviera gave him the kick in the pants he needed.
Bubba’s slump-busting 69 was the story of round four, but Watson was not the best player on Sunday.
Canada’s Adam Hadwin shot a low-round 5-under 66. Hadwin had made the cut on the number, but went 66-66 on the weekend for his second top 10 of the season, a nice development after he struggled badly over the second half of 2017.
Hadwin had just one bogey over the tournament’s final two days and was a tee-to-green marvel, finishing T8.
Hadwin’s 14-spot jump was eclipsed by world No. 10 Rory McIlroy, who saw a 22-place improvement after a final-round 3-under 68.
McIlroy finished T20 in his second 2018 PGA Tour start, after surprisingly missing the cut at Pebble Beach last week. Rory had, by far, his best putting performance on Sunday, which allowed him to jump from 42nd place to T20, which should give the 4-time major winner a tremendous confidence boost moving forward.
Besting McIlroy with a 4-under Sunday 67 was Jordan Spieth, who had just one bogey on the final day to finish T9, his second top 10 in five events this season.
Spieth did the majority of his damage approaching the greens, as he hit 14 of 18 greens in regulation on Sunday, which was four better than his previous best for the week. The 67 was a nice cap to a week where he improved with each round, after finishing 71-70-69 in his first three rounds.
The 2010 U.S. Open Champion, Graeme McDowell, was at 8-under par through 54 holes, and sitting in third place – his best position in recent memory, heading into a final round.
But on Sunday, McDowell’s dream weekend ended with a nightmare round of 6-over 77, as six bogeys in a seven-hole stretch (Nos. 9-15) doomed his day, and saw the Northern Irishman plummet from third to T26.
No longer in the world’s top 200, McDowell was looking for his first single-digit place finish since a T5 at the 2016 Wyndham Championship. The 38-year-old McDowell hit just three fairways on Sunday, and was abysmal on the greens.
The only player to fare worse than McDowell in the final round was one of his young European peers, Thomas Pieters, who shot a 7-over 78.
The 26-year-old Belgian bomber was runner-up at Riviera last year, but was birdie-free on Sunday this year, as a triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 6th hole led to a 26-spot drop down the leadeboard.
Pieters’ tee-to-green game was absolutely dreadful on Sunday, as he lost more than three strokes to field in the range, and lost an additional three on the greens.
For the second straight week, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson failed to get anything going on Sunday. Last week at Pebble, DJ was the 54-hole leader before a terrible Sunday dropped him from his perch.
This week was different as a terrible opening-round 74 left the defending champion well back of the lead after 18 holes, but after a tournament-low 7-under 64 on Saturday, Johnson had moved back into the mix.
Beginning Sunday just four strokes back, DJ offset five birdies with three bogeys and two doubles for a 2-over 73. Johnson dropped from 8th place T16, the first time in four starts this season he has been out of the top two.
THREE IN A ROW FOR PHIL
One of the biggest stories coming into the week was the recent mini-tear for two-time tournament champion Phil Mickelson, who was coming off two consecutive top-five performances over the last two weeks.
The 47-year-old Mickelson, who is looking for his first victory anywhere since 2013, was solid again on Sunday, carding six birdies in a 3-under 68 that was one of the lowest rounds in the field. Phil had suddenly surged to just one back of the lead on the back nine, but bogeys on 16 and 17 meant another “close, but no cigar” week, as he finished T6, the third consecutive week he had finished at least that high on the leaderboard.
“I got my 10 wins. Nobody thought that Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Florida, would ever get to 10 wins, let’s be honest. Without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can’t putt, you know? Somehow we’re here making fun of it. So yes, I’ve got to set a new goal.”
– Bubba Watson