Watson's WGC-Cadillac loss can't be termed as a choke

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March 13, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM

Of all the things Bubba Watson did last Sunday at the TPC Blue Monster -- and there were some wild ones even by his standards -- the one thing he did not do was choke.

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That ought to spark some disagreement from folks who like to apply the c-word to every wayward shot and missed putt a touring pro has under pressure, but let's examine what Watson did during the final round of the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship and see if it fits into the true definition of the word.

The most elegant summation of what choking is can be found in Dr. Bob Rotella's 1995 best seller, "Golf Is Not a Game of Perfect." Rotella, one of the most-respected sports psychologists in the business, summed it up this way: a golfer chokes when he lets anger, doubt, fear or some other extraneous factor distract him before a shot.

Watson birdied the opening hole from the rough, barely missing an eagle from the fringe. He saved par at the second with a 20-footer after hitting his tee shot in the rough with a 3-iron off the tee. The choice of iron was immediately questioned by analysts in the TV tower, because Watson had bombed driver down the neck of the 418-yard, par-four all week and birdied the hole in the three previous rounds.

They had a point, but missed the main one -- the Sunday hole position was right behind the front bunker, and Watson had said Saturday night that he wouldn't be hitting the driver at No. 2. It was in his plan to lay up for a full shot to give himself a better chance to get at the pin. He didn't execute the tee shot, pulling it into the right rough. So agree or disagree with the choice, but there's no choke there.

At the third, he tried an aggressive second shot from a tough lie in heavy Bermuda rough and hooked it into the lake. Questionable club selection, maybe, but in a situation where double-bogey is almost a given, he saved bogey with a left-to-right breaker from 25 feet.

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So far, no signs of anger, doubt fear or extraneous factors in play. Even after he bogeyed the par-three fourth -- where Rose was one of just three players who made birdie -- and then hit his drive on the fifth into a canal way left of the fairway to set up his third straight bogey, Watson was under control of himself. No sweating, gulping, club-slamming, swearing or faster-than-usual walking. The color wasn't draining from his face, another stress indicator that can presage choking.

What was going on with Watson -- a feel player who chooses to have no swing coach or sports psychologists -- went undetected by most of the experts.

When his ball striking goes awry, as it clearly was in the early going, the culprit is ball position in his stance. As unorthodox and free-form as his golf swing is, and as varied as his angles of attack into the ball are, there are some very minute things that can go wrong. Watson knows what they are and has lately been working to fix them during the round.

"My thing is when I get off, or what I consider off, is always ball position," Watson said. "Too close from it, too far from it, too far forward, too far back. I like to move the ball a lot so my ball position changes about every 30 seconds."

Once he solved the ball-position problem, Watson fought his way back into contention, head-to-head with Rose. Keegan Bradley, who began the day tied with Rose at 14 under, three strokes back, reached 17-under and led by two after a birdie at the seventh. But the talented young player then bogeyed the par-5 eighth and dissolved coming in with four bogeys and a double at the last to finish at 11 under.

"We're not playing for second. We're playing to win."

-- Bubba Watson

From that point on, it was Rose and Watson, head-to-head. To put it in simple terms, the four-stroke swing happened when Rose played the first five holes in 2 under, and Watson played them in 2 over. On the last 13 holes, both played the course in even par.

And at the end of the very long day Watson was standing on the 18th hole needing a birdie to get into a playoff. Anyone who watched how he got there, and what he did on the hole, and still concludes he choked the tournament away may want to examine the definition of the word.

All he did at the 467-yard monster 18th was to play one of the greatest second shots under pressure the 50-year-old course has ever seen. For pure skill, imagination and execution, it arguably surpassed Craig Parry's 6-iron into the hole from 176 yards, on a flat, calm day, for a walkoff eagle to beat Scott Verplank in 2004 playoff.

With the wind gusting over 15 miles per hour, from the heavy rough right of the fairway, at the hole where fewer than one in three of the world's best players hit the green in regulation all day, Watson smashed a 4-iron that stopped nine feet from the hole.

He put a good stroke on the putt, but broke slightly more left at the hole than he had calculated, burning the edge. Afterward, Watson stood calmly behind the green talking in rapid, staccato bursts, shaping his thoughts on the fly just the way he shapes his shots.

In his last shot at redemption for the shaky start, he had burned the edge after doing everything right. He was proud of the way he fought back into contention, and proud of the shot he hit into the last green. He had every right to be.

"It was a perfect lie, so I'm used to hitting out of the rough on tough shots," Watson said with a half smile, maybe thinking back to his imperfect 7-of-7 missed fairways on the front nine. "So, uh, so for me it was a 4-iron, I think we had 191 hole and I just wanted to chop down on a 4-iron and I had no grass behind the ball.

"So it was just a perfect impact and just tried to cut it. And we're not playing for second, we're playing to win. So I was just trying to go right at the pin, never even thought about anything else."

Chances are, if he thinks about figuring out a more systematic way to gauge his ball position at address, it won't be long before he starts adding to his three PGA TOUR victories.

Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.

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