Bubba Watson cruised through the first three rounds of the Waste Management Phoenix Open, a 64, 66, 68 performance that won him the 54-hole lead and a trip to the Media Center interview room. With 19 birdies and just 4 bogeys you would think it had been all so simple for him. As we find out in his opening comments, you would be wrong:
The round started off really good. You know, I was playing solid. I lost focus on No. 10. You know, I just wasn’t focused on my shots, so I hit it short and I plugged it in the bunker on No. 10.
Easy shot. Perfect lie in the middle of the fairway. Only 78 yards. A dumb bogey there, and then the waiting game happened. You know, we waited on every hole after that and waited for rules officials for some of my drops I had to take.
So, yeah, the back nine just got real slow and sluggish, and I just kind of lost focused a little bit on my tee shots. After you hit bad tee shots, you have to focus or you’re going to look really bad. Somehow I didn’t make a bogey coming down the last eight holes.
There is no protocol in the interview room for who asks questions; it’s first come, first served. And there always seems to be a beat or two before the first person gets one out. Since he spoke specifically about focus, the heartbeat of this blog, I waited just one beat before I jumped into the fray:
Q. How do you get your focus back when you lose it like that? Can you describe the process?
Well, you’re either going to embarrass yourself on national television or you’re going to have to man up.
You know, I made what I thought was a good swing on let’s just start with — oh, man, 14. 14 I was middle the fairway. I had 105, I think it was, and I had a 64‑degree lob wedge, which I normally hit about a hundred yards [Yikes!]. I flew it downwind, but I flew it 112 [Double Yikes!], you know.
So it was a good swing, good everything, but somehow it flew farther. Two‑putted. Par‑5, I hit a pretty good shot. Just trickled into the desert, laid it up. Then I had 104, so I took out lob wedge again, 64‑degree lob wedge on 15, and I had 104 to the hole.
So this time I was going to take it a little short, land it about 10, 12 yards short of the pin and skip it back there. But I flew it again 101 yards, bounced over the green, chipped it up and somehow made a 20‑footer.
Hit a great shot on 16. Had a nasty, nasty spike mark in front of me, and so, you know, I just missed my putt.
On 17, after I hit the tee shot sitting there, not sure what I wanted to do, what club I wanted to hit, I hit the driver. Had 44 yards we came up with, and then I hit this easily the best shot of my week from 44 yards upwind to the green [to 11 feet], and then to make the putt obviously made it that much better.
So it was rough tee shots, but I thought I was hitting the ball really well, really nicely, the shots into the greens. But my distances were just — either pumped up, whatever it was, some would go long. One came up short on 13. Spun back.
My distances were a little off. I got it back in play, and then my distances were just off on some of the shots, so it made it tougher, made it look tougher than it really was.
He was only responsive to my question in the first sentence: don’t embarrass yourself on national television, you just have to man up. But his detail of his perceived travails gave me an opening to press a little deeper.
Q. As that unfolded, did you feel like you were still in the zone?
I don’t think I’m in the zone. If I was in the zone, I’d hit all fairways. I see it as — you know, after that, I get hyperfocused because I’ve got to now come out of trouble.
So, you know, me, it’s just bearing down and getting really focused on what I wanted to do. You know, I hit quality shots, but some numbers were — they went farther than they were. I got pumped up. It was a record crowd today, you know [189,722!]. I got excited, I guess.
He probably was in the zone because he couldn’t have hit the wedge shots he hit those distances unless he was. He just didn’t like his extraordinary results: nobody hits a 64 degree lob wedge 112 yards. And as to the drivers he felt he missed, that’s just the variability of the game, e.g., that driver that “rolled into the desert.” “Rub of the green,” they call it.
But once again, he gave me the opening to continue pressing on this line of questioning. So often, when you ask a “mental” question, the answer is general and formulaic because it will be familiar, and therefore acceptable, to the questioner. Anything deeper than that requires more time and would be beyond the questioner’s playing experience to understand. I had that experience with both Ai Miyazato and Sandra Gal, but when I pressed on, they were both immediately willing to go with me.
Just how would you describe the mystical workings of the mind? It’s not easy unless you think about and work on it a lot. So I pressed on with what “bearing down” feels like and he immediately pointed to how uncomfortable that pressure makes him feel:
Q. So what does bearing down feel like to you? How do you do that?
It’s terrible, because I’d rather be just hitting in the middle of the green and two‑putting.
No, it’s just — I just have to focus. I have to bear down and really not worry about what everybody else is doing, not worry about what Teddy [his caddie] is doing, not worry about breathing, not listening to the crowds, not worrying about people shuffling their feet, cameramen in the way, phones going off.
I have to focus on what I’m doing. That’s bearing down. Just hyperfocused on what shot’s at hand and not worry about the rest of the world that’s going on.
Another reporter followed the thread by asking about Watson’s well-known irritation about slow play on the PGA Tour.
Q. Did you shut out that slow play, too?
Well, if I could, I’d have a lot more wins than I have (laughter), and if I could putt. [He has a great sense of humor.]
No, I mean, that’s the name of the game. Everybody has to deal with it, everybody has to go through it. And not just this tournament. I’m talking about the slow play — I mean, we have had slow play for 40 years, like I said yesterday.
You just have to learn to deal with it, and I think I’ve gotten better over the years. I think my rookie season I was really flipping out, but I’ve gotten better.
So it’s just one of those things. It’s not going to happen overnight. It just takes time — by that time I will be on the Champions Tour. Everybody makes cuts there. [Interesting that even for a great player like Watson, making cuts still hangs over his head like the sword of Damocles.]
So, speaking of focus, when he was detailing all of the things that he couldn’t be worried about in answer to my third question, I could have sworn that he mentioned his swing. He didn’t. But my lack of consciousness — oh, okay, my projection — provided an opening for the last question of the day and a fitting reminder from a great player of what the game is really about.
Q. You said earlier that when you really get into making your shots, it’s not about the swing. That was one of the things you ticked off. It never really is about the swing for you, is it?
No, I have never once thought about my swing. I’d be a head case then. I’m a head case now [that sense of humor again]. My whole game is built on me just playing golf, me manufacturing something.
If you watch, sometimes you’ll see my slice my driver 50 yards just to get it in play. Sometimes you’ll see me bomb it away and put it in the rough to have an easier shot into the green. It’s all about just scoring. All I want to do is score. I don’t care how it looks. There are no pictures on the scorecard.
So that’s all I’m trying to do, I’m trying to make a score. Somehow I walked away with it, 68, 3‑under today with all that drama going on.
Not only is he funny, but he’s very thoughtful and generously, very frank.