John Clay: Bubba Watson eschews long-drive contest to keep practicing

Bubba Watson hit from the fairway on the 12th hole during a practice round for the PGA Championship on Tuesday.
Bubba Watson hit from the fairway on the 12th hole during a practice round for the PGA Championship on Tuesday. AP

LOUISVILLE — For fan fun, the PGA Championship held a long-drive contest Tuesday at Valhalla. When golfers came to the 10th hole of their practice round, names were announced, drivers drawn, distances calculated.

"I thought it was terrific," said Phil Mickelson, whose foursome entered into an in-house team competition, two-against-two. "I hope they keep doing it."

Bubba Watson, the longest hitter in the sport, wasn't playing any of the PGA's reindeer games.

[Related story: For Kenny Perry, Valhalla is a site of heartbreak and heroics]

Instead of a driver, Watson hit an iron.

"My thoughts, I want to practice the game of golf. I want to learn the golf course," said the man who hit a 424-yard drive last week in the Bridgestone World Golf Championship, the only 400-yard drive by any golfer in a PGA event this year.

"There's no reason to make something up in the middle of the practice round like that," he continued. "That's just me. Like it or not, that's just who I am. That's just what I think."

Lester "Bubba" Watson — fun-killer?

"I was just trying to prove a point that nobody cared about," he said.

Watson is the two-time Masters champion known for dining at Waffle House after his trip to the haughty Butler Cabin. He's the small-town guy from Bagdad, Fla., near Pensacola, who says he knows the press loves him — "I don't give p.c. answers," he said — but claims to tune out the media because "it's all negative."

He's also the golfer who has not been playing all that well of late — missing cuts at both the U.S. and British Opens before finishing tied for 37th at the Bridgestone last week — who is a legitimate threat to win this 96th PGA Championship.

In terms the locals can understand, he is the horse for the course.

"A big hitter, a big hitter that's hitting his driver well can play this golf course," said the 35-year-old Watson, who has never played Valhalla competitively before.

History suggests Valhalla favors heavy hitters who hit it high and far. The left-handed Watson has made a career out of doing just that, especially at Augusta, another course that has blessed the bombers.

Valhalla was designed by Jack Nicklaus and Watson finished third at another course Nicklaus designed, the Memorial at Muirfield Village, earlier this year.

Ah, but didn't the red-hot Rory McIlroy, winner of the British Open and then Bridgestone last week, outdrive Watson last week?

"He doesn't care if he out-drives me. I don't care if I out-drive him. We're trying to score," Watson said. "At the end of the day, if I out-drive him every hole and he beats me, he doesn't care. It's a big field so we are not looking at each other. We are looking at the score at the end of the week."

Other than the Masters, Watson's scores haven't been too good at the end of Major weeks. He has three top-10 finishes in 28 starts. Two were his Augusta wins of 2012 and 2014. The other was a second-place finish in the 2010 PGA when Watson lost a playoff to Martin Kaymer.

After winning the Northern Trust Open in February and slipping on another green jacket in April, Watson seemed poised for a serious 2014 run.

Then he missed the cut at the U.S. Open. Then he missed the cut at the British Open, where he caused a tabloid stir by failing to identify a single Beatle and complaining about the number of spectators allowed to wander inside the ropes.

That led some media members to wonder if the supposedly fun-loving Watson wasn't taking himself too seriously.

"I think the fans just see me as a small-town guy that's worked hard to get where he is, and I appreciate that," Watson said Tuesday. "I think they see it as a guy that's just out there having fun with the game of golf."

Just don't ask him to enter a long-drive contest, not while practicing for a major championship.

"I hit my three-iron perfect, though, right down the middle," Watson said with a smile. "Longest three-iron of the day. I won that competition. Take that."

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