AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Is it possible that a two-time Masters champion in the prime of his career is flying under the radar into Augusta, Ga., this week?
The pre-Masters chatter has been almost exclusively centered on Jason Day (the new No. 1 player in the world, winner of his last two starts and six of his last 13), and two former No. 1 players, defending champion Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, both of whom have struggled at times this season.
Throw in two-time Florida Swing winner and 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott as another player frequently mentioned as a serious contender.
But Bubba Watson, who won the Masters in 2012 and 2014 and has won more recently than Spieth or McIlroy this season, seems to be an afterthought, which could actually be fine with the mercurial University of Georgia graduate.
On March 6, after he finished second in the World Golf Championship at Doral, Watson issued a reminder that performances leading up to the Masters rarely mean much once the week starts -- his or anyone else's -- and gently chided the media for jumping on the bandwagon of the hot player.
"Being in the field at Augusta gives me good vibes," he said. "It means absolutely nothing what you do the week before or leading up to it. We all know that. But y'all have to write stories."
Regardless of Day's streak or if Spieth will revitalize a so-so season since his victory at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions or if McIlroy can avoid that key blow-up round plaguing him in recent weeks, they've still garnered the bulk of the pre-tournament buzz.
Exhibit A: A search of Google News late last week, using a player's name, followed by "Masters" and "Augusta National" showed 44,000 hits for Day, 32,800 for McIlroy, 24,000 for Spieth, 16,800 for Adam Scott and 15,700 for Watson.
Exhibit B: A teleconference last week with ESPN analysts Mike Tirico, Andy North and Curtis Strange yielded only one comment about Watson, by North.
"Let's look at Adam Scott ... and Bubba Watson and a handful of other guys who have been playing exceptionally well," said North, who along with Tirico and Strange will anchor the early-round coverage of the Masters.
For the remainder of the teleconference, questions about Day, Spieth, McIlroy, Scott, Zach Johnson, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were fielded. There was not another mention of Watson.
Others have taken notice. During a Golf Channel teleconference, PGA Tour winners Chris DiMarco and Notah Begay both brought up Watson's chances without being prompted by a question.
"It's actually a perfect scenario for Bubba Watson," DiMarco said. "... kind of sits in the background, nobody says his name and the course sets up. ... I don't think better for anybody than him."
Begay said Watson is getting lost in the shuffle with the media and fan excitement over the next breed of Tour stars.
"You talk about the big three or big four, and Bubba Watson is always the one that gets left out," Begay said. "I think that he gets overlooked, simply because he's not in that younger category."
With the exception of Watson's putting and short game (which he can take from zero to 60 in a heartbeat), he comes into the Masters with guns blazing in every statistical category and by any measure of scoring.
Watson is seventh on the FedEx Cup points list and third in earnings with more than $2.6 million. He has made all seven cuts this season, has three top 10s and four top 25s. In addition to his victory at the Northern Trust Open in February, Watson won Tiger Woods' Hero World Challenge in December, at 25-under-par.
While it's never a shock that he's near the top on the PGA Tour in driving distance (fourth, at 311.1 yards per clout), Watson leads in greens in regulation (.751), is first in strokes gained, tee-to-green (picking up an average of 2.3 shots per round on the field), is 10th in scoring (70.029), 11th in final-round scoring (68.2) and is among the top 15 in scoring average on par-3 holes (2.98), par-4 holes (3.97) and par-5 holes (4.46).
PUTTING, CHIPPING SHAKY
Given his solid performance this season, one has to wonder how good Watson will be once he starts to putt and chip. He is 142nd on the Tour in strokes gained putting (losing 0.141 strokes on the greens), is 140th in putts per green in regulation (1.781, which can be explained away by how many greens he's hit this season) and is 120th in scrambling, getting up and down for par or better from off the greens .592 percent of the time.
The money putts -- inside 10 feet -- are giving Watson fits. He's made only .858 of those, ranking 189th on the Tour.
Yet, he's pounding the ball so relentlessly and hitting so many greens, that Watson is giving himself enough chances. He's 15th on the Tour in average birdies per round (4.26), and he is second in the number of par-5 greens hit in regulation when going for it on his second shot (.387).
Like so any players, Watson finds Augusta National a place to energize his game. His imagination and hand-eye coordination have resulted in a good historical showings on the greens. For example, Watson has never finished higher than 67th on the Tour in putts per round and has finished out of the top 100 five times in the nine years since he played in his first Masters. But he's finished out of the top 40 in putts per round at Augusta only once in seven starts.
If anyone's into reading tea leaves, remember this: Watson has won the Masters in the last two even-numbered years, and in both cases, he finished second at Doral. In 2012, Watson also won at Riviera.
Of course, golf is never that predictable and Watson even less. One X-factor this week may be how he's affected by a "60 Minutes" segment aired on Sunday, during which Watson described his numerous phobias (crowds, strangers, the dark, heights, buildings falling on him) and told interviewer Sharyn Alfonsi "I have a lot of mental issues. ... I'm just to fearful of things, which I shouldn't be."
The good news for Watson every year at Augusta is that its huge number of patrons embrace past Masters champions.
They've embraced the first University of Georgia graduate to ever win a Masters even more since his playoff victory over Louis Oosthuizen four years ago.
Garry Smits: (904) 359-4362 ___
This article was written by Garry Smits from The Florida Times-Union and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.
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