Bubba Watson said before the U.S. Open that the Olympic Club didn’t suit his game. After realizing that could spell trouble for him again this week at the always-tough Royal Lytham & St. Annes, Watson arrived early to start practicing.
WHO: World’s top men’s golfers.
WHAT: 141st annual British Open.
WHEN: First round, 4 a.m. Thursday.
WHERE: Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club.
LYTHAM ST. ANNES, England — Another major championship has Masters champion Bubba Watson feeling a bit perplexed.
Only this time, it’s not just because of the golf course.
“I haven’t seen the water yet,” Watson said Monday after his first practice round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. “We’re really close to the water. My house is close to the water. But the water seems like it’s way away from the shoreline — like miles. Why is the water so far away? Like the beach goes for miles, and then the water is way out there. Can you answer that one?”
In these parts, that’s known as the tide.
This was Bubba having some fun on the first official day of practice, and he did well to escape the water that matters — the rain. Wet weather is in the forecast for much of the week in what has been a miserable summer of rain even by British standards.
But the former University of Georgia golf star managed to get in 18 holes before the first big downpour.
He’s really not concerned about finding the water in the Irish Sea when the Open begins Thursday. The bigger worry is trying to navigate through 206 bunkers that are littered across Royal Lytham & St. Annes, so many of them that Watson recited a few numbers that showed how much he was paying attention.
“Not that I counted, but there’s 17 (bunkers) on 18, and there’s nine on No. 1,” he said.
Watson only found two of them Monday, but it shaped his thinking for the week. He said he spent much of his practice round thinking about where to hit the ball, not how far. That pink driver on display at Augusta National didn’t come out of the bag that much. In its place were a variety of irons, anything to stay short of the bunkers.
“It looks like we’re going to hit a lot of irons off of tees, try to play safer, smarter — whatever you want to call it — and just have a longer shot into some of these holes,” Watson said. “The par 5, No. 7, I’m going to hit iron off that tee even though I could reach it if I hit it in the fairway with a driver. I have to figure out a way to lay back and just have a longer shot into some of these holes.
“That doesn’t mean I’m going to be able to do that,” he added with a smile. “That’s my goal.”
Even with four wins — including his first major in April — and talking about the unique style of play he calls “Bubba Golf,” Watson feels he has a lot to learn, especially in the majors. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open playing with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, saying even before it started that Olympic Club was too hard for him.
Lytham is hardly a pushover.
The bunkers can be so severe that defending champion Darren Clarke predicted some players might have no choice but to take a penalty drop because there’s no way out. Because of the wet spring, the native grass framing the fairways is so tall and thick and spotters have had a hard time finding the golf ball. Even if they do happen to find it, odds are the next shot won’t go far.
That’s why “Bubba Golf” this week might look a little conservative.
“I learned a lot at the U.S. Open watching Tiger, watching Phil, learning about strategy,” Watson said. “You know, the game is a tough game, so you’ve just got to learn and process this information and move on. I missed the cut there, but I feel good. I finished second the week after the U.S. Open. My game feels where it needs to be, but it’s all about executing the right shots at the right time and hitting them in the right place.”
The key is for his head to be in the right spot.
Watson likes to make fun of himself when it comes to his mental game, saying time and again that “I’ve got issues.” At home, he’s still finishing up the paperwork on the adoption of his son, Caleb, who came into his world right before he won the Masters. Watson gets distracted easily, whether it’s deciding what he wants for dinner or what video game he’s going to play that night. Part of his charm is that he acts like a kid.
“When I focus right, I play pretty good,” Watson said. “And when I don’t focus right, I miss the cut pretty quick.”
His focus at Lytham is being in the short grass.
There are a few holes, such as the 336-yard 16th hole with the wind from the Irish Sea at the players’ back, where they might be tempted to go for the green. Some of them tried on a more pleasant afternoon on Sunday, though the risk is to catch the bunkers short of the green. From there, players might need two more shots just to get on the green.
Watson was asked if he can overpower the golf course in good weather.
“It’s a trick question because yes, I can,” he said. “But I’ve got to hit every fairway, and with the driver sometimes I get a little wild, as we know. The high rough. It’s not like our rough in the U.S. This is hay that is 15 yards off the fairway, 10 yards off on some of the holes, and you might not find your ball. You have to play smart. This golf course, and the U.S. Open, they make you play to a strategy and have to play a certain way, so you have to do that.
“There could be a day out of four days that I can just beat the driver everywhere and play great golf,” he said. “But four days in a row to get that lucky, to not have a bad lie or find all my balls, that would be tough to do.”
Watson missed the cut at Turnberry and St. Andrews in his first two trips to the Open. A year ago, he improved to a tie for 30th. It’s not the best record so far, though his head appears to be in the right place. Unlike Olympic, where he didn’t like his chances upon seeing the course with so much slope in the fairways, he loves links golf.
Watson already has played Royal Birkdale and St. Annes Links before showing up at Lytham. He loves the creativity required, the bounces on the turf, the imagination. It’s different, but it’s fun.
“I think that’s why it gets so difficult for me is because there’s so many shots you can play,” he said. “But I love it. I love coming over here. It’s sad that it’s one week out of the year to play links golf for us from the U.S. But it’s fun. You can come over here and create shots that you don’t normally do.”