PINEHURST Bubba Watson put in a U.S. Open practice round Tuesday at Pinehurst No. 2, finding the fairway on the first hole with a well-struck drive and hitting the center of the green with a well-struck approach.
His third shot was 20 yards off the back of the green.
Welcome to No. 2. Welcome to the U.S. Open.
Watson is considered a pre-eminent ball-striker and shaper of the ball, but the 2014 Masters champion already has a sense of what’s in store for him this week.
The course is a challenge, he said. The greens are “unfriendly” – a word he chose Tuesday with a wry smile, noting his ball caught a slope on the first hole and rolled off the green.
“Two great shots, but …” he said of his start.
No. 2 will play to a par of 70 for the Open, but who knows what par will mean this week, in this Open.
“It’s not about the score,” Watson said. “If I win, I win. I don’t care what the score is.”
The late Payne Stewart was the winner in 1999 with a 1-under 279 total. In 2005, even-par 280 was good enough to make Michael Campbell of New Zealand the Open champion.
While Watson has twice won the Masters and unabashedly loves the slopes, undulations, look and feel of Augusta National, he has not fared that well in his seven U.S. Open appearances. Now 35, his best U.S. Open showing was a tie for fifth in 2007 at Oakmont (he was 9 over par).
But only one player has a chance to win the year’s first two majors – Gerry Lester “Bubba” Watson Jr. Only one has a chance at a Grand Slam in the calendar year.
But Watson said he likes the look of No. 2. It reminds him of his old golf course, Tanglewood Golf and Country Club in Bagdad, Fla., with its pine trees.
Hit it offline at No. 2 and Watson said a player can find the “rough, dirt, sand” – that is, the love grass, natural waste areas, pine needles and hard pan. At Tanglewood, he said, it would be in “the weeds.”
But Watson said “Bubba Golf” this week might be leaving the driver in the bag. He’ll lay up on holes off the tee, even if it presents longer approach shots.
As Australian Jason Day said Tuesday, “This is more of a second-shot golf course.”
The par-5 10th hole, Watson said, plays 617 yards but he likely will use an iron off the tee for positioning. Doesn’t want to, but will.
“But again, the U.S. Open is challenging you at all levels,” he said. “If you want to be a man, you can hit (a) driver. If you want to lay back and play smarter, you can.”
Watson’s game plan for now is “play smarter,” although he laughed and said if he starts out with too many bogeys or worse, that plan could quickly change. Then grip and rip.
At the par-4 16th, Watson said he hit his drive 295 yards, but he was left with a 247-yard 3 iron approach.
“It’s a fun golf course, but it wears you down,” he said. “It wears you down mentally.”
Watson said he’s happy with his game but more so with his mindset. He has a loving family. He’s playing well – a golfer, a man, at peace with himself.
“Mentally I’m in a good spot,” he said.
Now, if he can just put the ball in enough good spots.