SAN FRANCISCO — Bubba Watson is a Masters champion. Yet this big hitter with an imaginative swing is wary of what awaits at the U.S. Open. So much so that he’s warning fans to beware of wild drives this week at The Olympic Club.
“Hopefully I don’t hit too many people,” Watson said after playing 10 holes Tuesday morning on the tight, twisting fairways. “Hopefully they forgive me if I do.”
Winning a major hasn’t changed Watson, the self-taught player who still tells it like it is. His unorthodox approach to golf and distance off the tee endears him to fans, who greeted him Tuesday with shouts of “champion Bubba” and “Master Watson.”
While he obliged autograph seekers, and even shared laughs with a reporter between holes, he wasn’t laughing when asked about a demanding layout that he said could make top players look silly.
“I don’t want to come out here and shoot 80,” he said. “As of right now, I don’t like it. There’s an 80 lurking. After four days of golf, if there’s not an 80, then I like it all right.”
Watson has had extra time to prepare for Olympic. He missed the cut at the Memorial, and went to Scottsdale to practice. He arrived in California on Saturday night and played 18 holes Sunday, 10 Monday and 10 again Tuesday.
After finishing Tuesday, he went right to the practice green, where he worked for 90 minutes.
Watson, who entered the week ranked 99th on the PGA Tour in driving accuracy, insisted he can win despite that.
“Yes, I believe I can the way I hit it,” said Watson, who vowed to use driver on nine holes. “Obviously this week everybody is going to have trouble hitting fairways and out of the rough. I think with my length, with my so-called strength, I can hit irons out of the rough that people can’t hit as far. If I can just putt. It comes down to putting and chipping.”
Watson, 33, is playing in his sixth U.S. Open but first as a major champion, having pulled off an astounding shot from the pine straw to win the Masters in April. His best finish in a U.S. Open was 2007 when he tied for fifth at Oakmont at 9 over.
“Oakmont was probably the toughest course I’ve ever seen, the way it was set up,” he said.
Olympic may match it this week, or play even tougher.
He’s not sure — he’s still trying to figure out how to play several holes.
Watson was particularly critical of the par-3 No. 13, where the left side has been shaved so tight it’s possible to land on the green and still end up in the hazard. And he said he had to slice a 9-iron about 40 yards on No. 14 Tuesday just to hit the green from the middle of the fairway.
“It just doesn’t make sense,” Watson said.
Even a guy leading the tour in driving distance can’t reach the 670-yard par-5 No. 16 in two.
“You can’t reach that hole in two from the forward tee,” Watson said. “I hit driver, driver today and still had 60 yards from the middle of the fairway.”
He predicted those who hit it in the rough won’t get there in three shots.
“The other parts of the golf course are just tough,” he said, predicting 5-over-par may have a shot at winning.
While Watson was uneasy about Olympic, he wasn’t fretting being paired with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson the first two days, even if he called them “legends of the game” and predicted big galleries.
“I’ve played with those guys before. Know them. Good friends. Obviously you step up your game. Intimidation, no,” Watson said.
Woods has lauded past Open champs at Olympic as great shot-shapers, and put the other lefty up there “as the best in this generation of players.”
Shaping shots is one thing, Watson said. Keeping balls in the fairway or on the green another at Olympic.
Still, no matter what happens Watson wouldn’t trade where he is right now — a major winner and father of a baby boy.
Both were life-changing events, and they happened within weeks of each other as he and wife Angie adopted Caleb on March 26.
“It’s been a tough road trying to get back to golf, trying to get back focusing on golf,” said Watson, who skipped The Players to spend time with his son and wife.
Yet the time away — he has played just twice since the Masters — has showed him how much he misses the game.
Knowing there’s a green jacket hanging in his closet, along with a pint-sized one made for Caleb, gives him the confidence he needs.
“It’s always in the back of your mind that you’ve done it once, you can do it again,” he said.
That Sunday is Father’s Day would make winning back-to-back majors all the more special.
This will be Watson’s first Father’s Day as a father, having lost his own father to throat cancer in October 2010.
“Hopefully I’m here on Sunday,” Watson said. “Father’s Day will be different. No matter where I’m at, it will be different because I’ll be a father.”
With that the guy who broke down in tears after his Masters win gushed about Caleb’s bright smile, especially watching him splash more water out of his little tub during baths.
“It’s been fun every day,” he said.