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Watson Defies Past Struggles To Climb Into Contention With a 67

June 18, 2021 SAN DIEGO, CALIF. By Dave Shedloski
Through two rounds at Torrey Pines, Watson is playing with a comfort level he hasn't shown in previous U.S. Opens. (Chris Keane/USGA)

Bubba Watson is made for the U.S. Open the way long johns are made for a South Florida beach: Both tend to run hot in the wrong environment.

In Watson’s case, playing in the national championship feels like trying to swing in a straitjacket. It’s confining, stupefying, uncomfortable. Maddening. A two-time Masters champion, Watson likes to free-wheel it. He likes to create and shape shots. The U.S. Open demands discipline, patience and accuracy. Boring golf is exciting in a U.S. Open because that is winning golf. But boring golf is just, well… boring to the lanky left-hander.

On Friday on the South Course at Torrey Pines, Watson had something to be excited about, though. A 4-under-par 67 propelled him up the leader board after two rounds of the 121st U.S. Open in San Diego, and he couldn’t help but feel some satisfaction. Not only did he equal his career low among 42 rounds in the championship, his 3-under 139 total has him solidly in the top 10, just two behind 48-year-old Richard Bland of England.

Watson, 42, hasn’t resided inside the top 10 after 36 holes since the 2007 U.S. Open at Oakmont, which resulted in his only top-10 finish, a tie for fifth place. Since then, he has missed the cut (7) more times than he has made it (5), with a top finish of T18 in 2009, the same year he shot the aforementioned 67.

“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Watson, 42, said glibly. “I was just kind of in the flow playing with two great guys, shooting the breeze, making fun of them and stuff, so it really took me out of my element. I didn’t know what they were shooting. They didn’t know what I was doing.”

What Watson was doing while playing alongside fellow Masters winners Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia was pouring in putts all over the joint. He made seven birdies, including five in his last six holes. He looked rather comfortable on a course where he won the Farmers Insurance Open in 2011. Yet he wasn’t all that comfortable.

"I am nervous over every shot, OK? Told a guy out there ... he said, ‘Man, great putt. You make everything.’ I said, ‘I’m trying to lag it, man, but they keep falling in.’ I don’t know what's going on. I’m so nervous.”

This is nothing new for the Florida native. His nerves have been hammering his psyche for years, but nobody knew it until recently, when he opened up about his mental health challenges. About five years ago he dropped a considerable amount of weight, some 20-30 pounds. He was carrying around 162 pounds on his 6-foot-3 frame. That coincided with a low point in his battle with himself. He looked ill, but no one knew why, and he never said at the time.

Watson already was in the news on Thursday before he teed off. Matthew Wolff, who took nearly two months off to confront his own struggles, opened with a heartening 70 and spoke of a chat he had with Watson earlier in the week. Watson just wanted to offer support, give him some of his own perspective.

“He didn’t ask for it [advice], but I gave it to him anyway,” Watson said. “It's probably more helpful to me than him just because I can hear it again in my own head, me saying it out loud, and I played pretty calm out there the last couple days. So, I guess it did work out for me.

“I had a charter [flight] on Monday morning to go to the Travelers Championship, so I didn’t want to sit and watch golf,” he added, making light of his performance. “I wanted to actually play it. So I’m glad I made the cut.”

He actually has a very good chance to win it, a good chance to end a winless stretch dating to the 2018 Travelers. He likes Torrey Pines, not just for what he did here before, but for what is out there this week. Watson found plenty of fairways, setting up his scoring opportunities, but he feels like he has a chance wherever he ventures because there are opportunities for him to use his shot-making repertoire occasionally out of the rough.

What could a win mean?

“Gosh, the U.S. Open … I curve the ball too much, I don’t putt as good as I should, heavy rough,” he said, listing the reasons he shouldn’t be in the conversation during a brief Golf Channel interview. “But this is the kind of golf course where I can get lucky and do it. … But I could win the Lotto, too. I’ve never bought a Lotto ticket. I guess it would be like that, like winning the Lotto.

“I’m looking forward to it, though,” he added. “Whatever position I’m in, I made the cut, so that’s a bonus for me. A golf course that I've been successful around a few times, top 10 a few times, so looking forward to the challenge, kind of.”

Kind of.

That kind of makes sense. Bubba Watson wasn’t made for the U.S. Open. But maybe he was made for this one.

Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.