WGC-Dell Match PlayMarch 24, 2018

Bubba Watson's big adventure: He booms, he rolls, he laughs, he lives to face Justin Thomas on Sunday

Gregory Shamus

Bubba Watson, a 5-and-3 winner over Kiradech Aphibarnrat on Saturday afternoon, will play Justin Thomas in a semifinal match on Sunday morning in the WGC-Dell Match Play. (Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

AUSTIN — One of the many surprising things about Bubba Watson is that when he's in high spirits, he's funny. After his easy 5-and-3 win over Kiradech Aphibarnrat in the quarterfinals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play, Watson sailed through the usual TV interviews in light spirits—Golf Channel, Sky Sports, PGA Tour radio, European Tour whatever—and when told he had one more stop to make for the lowly writers, he couldn't resist a bit of sarcasm: "Sure, I've been out here since 5 a.m., why don't we do a few more?"

But he was smiling, and his heart wasn't in the dark place. It's easy to tell when Bubba has the black cloud over him, and this wasn't one of those times—once on the dreaded interview stage, he positively chewed up the scenery, a ham in all his glory:

Q. Your next opponent, you're the only one that stands between him and World No. 1. I wonder if you have any comment on that?

BUBBA WATSON: Does he have to win the tournament, too? For the right price, he can win. No … you didn't hear that. We'll take that from the record book.

and:

BUBBA WATSON: A few years ago in Tucson, wasn't it the same thing with Martin Kaymer? Martin Kaymer beat me, and I think he had to beat me to become No. 1. I guess I'm good at that. If you want No. 1, just beat me, and you'll be No. 1.

He even came armed with one of his classic Bubba stories that will surely be the lead anecdote in a dozen blog posts and newspaper stories. Get this—he and the family have a vacation coming up, and he scheduled a flight out of the country for Sunday morning, because he never made it to the final day of this tournament and thought, why not? He probably wouldn't be around anyway. Plus, flights were cheaper on Sunday. But now...now Bubba has to cancel that flight, and his wife's cell phone is off, and boy is she going to be mad when she finds out!

He delivered the punch line in vintage good-ole-boy rhythm:

"I'm going to have to tell her that we ain't making it," he said. "So it would be happy from the golf standpoint, but from the other side it will not be happy."

Does it matter if a few of the details are a little dubious? That it's tough to believe his wife won't know he won his match without a "honey, you better sit down" phone call? That the volunteer standing at the back of the press conference had a point when she whispered, "doesn't he have enough money not to worry about booking the cheap flight?" That, even though it's true that he's never made it to Sunday in Austin, he has reached the final day of this tournament in 2011?

No, actually, it doesn't—Bubba was in sublime storyteller mode, a raconteur in his element, and if the edges had to be blurred on a few details to make it land a little better, so be it.

And he deserved the creative license, because he absolutely steamrolled Aphibarnrat on Saturday afternoon. After Bubba took a 1-up advantage on the seventh green, I watched the best golfer in Thailand as he started the long walk to the eighth. The temperature fell somewhere in the mid-to-high 80s, but it felt hotter, the way it always does in the early spring when the sun beats down before we're acclimated to summer weather. And Austin Country Club itself is a brutal walking course—when you're not beating your way up steep hills, you're balancing on sideways slopes, wondering why your ankles are so sore and trying not to give the drunk fans any extra entertainment by wiping out on the slick, desiccated grass. I learned quickly how to take a hiatus between the eighth and 11th holes when following a group, if for no other reason than to catch a breather and rest my legs.

Aphibarnrat had no such luxury when he played a grueling 18-hole match with Charles Howell III this morning (he won 1-up with wins on 17 and 18), and now he was being asked to do it again. He is not a fit man (charitably), and anyone who watched him for more than ten seconds after the 7th hole would have concluded first that he was not enjoying himself, and second that he had absolutely no chance to beat Bubba Watson. Spilling out of his shirt (alive with 3-D pentagons, the words "Thailand fragrant property" printed on one breast, and a griffin-like creature on the other), he trudged through the course rather than walked, and his face bore the expression of an amateur biker trying to ascend the last half mile of a category four mountain climb. When the terrain turned hilly, he slouched, torso slumped forward like Charlie Brown at his saddest.

Meanwhile, Bubba had his usual self-consciously erect posture, shoulders thrown back, eyes up, tall and defiant. Some match play golfers like to walk ahead of their opponents, as a sort of intimidation tactic, but it occurred to me as I watched Aphibarnrat amble toward the eighth tee that Bubba had no choice in the matter—with his long strides, he could not have walked behind him if he tried.

Bubba gave the ninth hole away with a chunked wedge to bring his opponent back to 1-down, but from that point on, it was nothing but disaster for the big man. An inexplicable wedge followed by an inexplicable pitch gave Bubba the 10th hole, and Aphibarnrat followed that by three-putting the 11th. Bubba stood on high ground, watching him with both hands on his hips, one foot cocked out, and when the putt rolled past, he and Ted Scott moved without a word to the 12th tee.

"He's hot-headed, you got this, you're in his head already," one fan shouted to Aphibarnrat, but this strange and inaccurate encouragement failed to inspire him as he yanked his drive left. Watson and Scott stared intently at the hole on his approach, silent, as though if they looked long enough the secret to success might rise mirage-like from the water on the left. Boats looked on from "Lake Austin," which is not a lake at all but a small reservoir where the Colorado River becomes very slightly wider, and one of the boats had a cameraman, an audio tech with a boom mic, and a dozen women wearing only bikinis. They shouted Bubba's name in unison, and for once in his life he looked a little shy as he half-raised his putter to them.

The 12th hole is gorgeous, with the rusted parabola of the 360 bridge and the limestone cliffs as a backdrop, but its chief appeal to Aphibarnrat must have been the topography—it was downhill. But that didn't save him from another poor chip, and another lost hole, after which he looked to the sky with a silent groan, a supplication to who knows what. The same thing on the driveable 13th, past the pond smelling of algae and gasoline, where Bubba played the smart move by laying up with iron, but Aphibarnrat refused to take the bait, and did the same. On the walk up the fairway, Bubba chatted with him about the boats, more casual as he sensed the end, but even so he couldn't make himself walk slow enough and was soon shouting a story over his shoulder from 20 yards ahead as Aphibarnrat mumbled something about jet skis.

Then the big man chunked yet another wedge, made a par-saving putt that looked significant but was not, and fell 4-down when Bubba holed his birdie. Two mundane holes later, the match was over, and Bubba had reached the semifinals at the Match Play for the first time in seven years. In 2011, as he noted, he stood between Martin Kaymer and the number one world ranking, and tomorrow he will play the same role for Justin Thomas.

"It'll just be a friendly game," he said. "And hopefully I'm more friendly at the end than he is."

I hope so too. It's that, or the black cloud.


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