Watson Returns to Scene of His Best Open Showing
By Bill Fields
OAKMONT, Pa. – If Bubba Watson wants to find the U.S. Open mojo that has been largely lacking in his successful career, Oakmont Country Club is a logical place to look.
The two-time Masters champion has only one top-10 finish in nine U.S. Open starts, but it came in the championship’s last visit to Oakmont in 2007. That was just the second major-championship start of his career (he missed the cut in the 2004 U.S. Open).
Watson played his way into the final grouping on Saturday afternoon that June, eventually finishing in a tie for fifth after a pair of 4-over 74s on the weekend. That result was good enough to earn Watson his first invitation the following spring to Augusta National, where he won a green jacket in 2012 and 2014.
The left-hander has missed the cut in four other U.S. Opens and has just one other top-20 finish, a T-18 at Bethpage State Park in 2009. He is trying to go into Thursday’s opening round with a positive mindset.
“It’s a good test,” Watson said of Oakmont. “It’s a beautiful track and the green surfaces are running perfectly.”
Aside from the treacherously fast and sloped greens, Oakmont’s punishing rough has gotten lots of pre-championship attention. Watson had some fun with a greenside shot Tuesday at No. 14, flopping a ball up in the air, bouncing it off his wedge, catching it and then tossing it into the hole.
Watson knows the rough will play a huge role this week.
“I’ve always been comfortable at U.S. Opens, but the courses are so difficult,” he said. “You can land a couple in the fairway around here and it goes in the rough. You land a couple on the green and it goes in the rough. You might have hit quality shots but it got a firm bounce instead of a soft bounce so it penalizes you. It comes down to whether you get a halfway decent lie or a really bad lie.”
Known for his length and creative shotmaking, Watson plans to only hit five or six drivers a day off the tee at Oakmont. “It’s all about position, all about trying to get it in the short grass because this rough is so penalizing,” he said.
Watson has obviously putted well at Augusta National, another course with slick and undulating greens. He putted well at Oakmont nine years ago, ranking fourth for the championship in putts per round with a 29.50 average. Watson also struck the ball well, ranking 31st in fairways hit and eighth in greens in regulation.
He laughed when it was suggested that Oakmont’s challenging greens suit his creativity.
“Yes, if you’re playing well,” he said. “But if you’re not thinking well and not striking it the way you want to, then it becomes very difficult. It depends on the moment, what day it is and how you feel that day.”
Added Watson’s good friend Rickie Fowler, who played nine holes with him Wednesday morning: “As far as the golf course goes and working the ball both ways, the course suits him. Obviously, he’s played well at Augusta. It’s a place he can use his creativity. On the greens, it’s tough here and you’ve got to have your speed control pretty good.”
Other than his two Masters victories and the top-five finish at Oakmont in 2007, Watson has only one other top-10 showing in 33 major starts – runner-up in the 2010 PGA Championship, where he lost in a playoff to Martin Kaymer. But Watson can imagine what it would be like to play his way into contention for a second time on one of America’s storied courses.
“It would be a thrill,” Watson said. “Any time you have a chance on Sunday at any tournament it’s great, but now you’re talking U.S. Open, the national championship. It would be an honor and privilege to lift the trophy, but also just to have a chance with nine holes to go.”
Bill Fields is a Connecticut-based freelance writer who contributes frequently to USGA websites.