Bubba Watson withstood an inspired early challenge from playing partner Jordan Spieth to clinch the Masters for a second time in three years with a three-shot victory at Augusta National on Sunday.
Trailing the prodigiously talented Spieth by two strokes after four holes, left-hander Watson took advantage of a stumbling run by his fellow American around the turn as he upped his own game, then maintained control on the back nine.
Watson, who landed his first major title with a thrilling playoff win over South African Louis Oosthuizen in 2012, mixed five birdies with two bogeys to card a three-under-par 69 on a warm but mainly overcast afternoon. The 35-year-old from Bagdad in Florida, known for his distance off the tee and his audacious shot-making, covered the back nine in even par to post an eight-under total of 280.
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After being warmly embraced by his caddie and shaking hands with Spieth, Watson was then congratulated greenside by his wife Angie and their two-year-old boy Caleb. “This one is a lot different,” a teary-eyed Watson said before being helped into the revered green jacket by last year’s Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia.
“The first one for me (his 2012 Masters win), it’s almost like I lucked into it. This one was a lot of hard work and dedication. “After giving away that jacket last year, kind of wanted it back. I never loved green so much.”
Spieth, at 20 aiming to become the youngest player to win the Masters, had to settle for a share of second place at five under after signing off with a 72, finishing level with Swede Jonas Blixt (71).
Pony-tailed Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, at the ripe age of 50 aiming to surpass Jack Nicklaus by becoming the oldest Masters winner, placed fourth after also carding a 71.
American world number seven Matt Kuchar, seeking his first major victory, briefly held a share of the lead after three holes but then struggled on a layout running fast and firm on the way to a 74 and a tie for fifth with Rickie Fowler (73).
German veteran Bernhard Langer, a double Masters champion, rolled back the years with a closing 69 to finish at even par, level with five others including Rory McIlroy (69) and American Jimmy Walker (70).
Spieth had been the dominant figure in the early going on Sunday with some riveting golf, four birdies and a bogey in the first seven holes putting him two ahead of the chasing pack. He picked up his first shot of the day at the par-five second, sinking a left-to-right breaking putt from 10 feet, then spectacularly holed out from a greenside bunker to birdie the par-three fourth, raising both arms in celebration.
Though he bogeyed the fifth after hitting his approach into a greenside bunker, he recovered with birdies at the par-three sixth, hitting his tee shot to three feet, and at the seventh, where he coaxed in a slick 12-footer downhill.
Watson, who had offset a bogey at the third with a birdie at the fourth, kicked in with another birdie at the sixth where his tee shot ended up nine feet from the cup and he coolly sank the putt.
He then benefited from two-shot swings at the eighth and ninth. While Watson got up and down from left of the green to birdie the par-five eighth, Spieth ran up a three-putt bogey to drop back into a tie for the lead at seven under.
Spieth also bogeyed the par-four ninth after his approach rolled off the front of the elevated green and he failed to get up and down from there, missing a par putt from five feet.
Watson hit his second shot there to 15 feet and, with ice-cool nerve, rolled in the birdie putt which broke from right-to-left.
Though Watson stumbled with a bogey at the tricky 10th, he regained a two-stroke cushion when Spieth fell victim to the swirling winds around Amen Corner with a bogey at the par-three 12th after his tee shot ended up in the water of Rae’s Creek.
The long-hitting Watson increased his lead to three shots at the par-five 13th after a huge drive set up a comfortable two-putt birdie before he comfortably parred the last five holes to secure victory.
Augusta Spieth a rising star
Jordan Spieth may have missed his chance to become the youngest Masters champion but the 20-year-old showed he could yet be a champion for the ages.
The baby-faced Texan belied his tender years with a stunning debut at Augusta National, finishing tied for second behind Bubba Watson after flirting with history. Had he won, Spieth would have become the youngest winner of the coveted green jacket, eclipsing the record set by Tiger Woods when he won the first of his four Masters titles in 1997 at the age of 21.
He would also have been the first rookie to win at Augusta since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 but the fact that he came up short hardly mattered. Barely out of his teens and still too young to legally buy booze in the United States, Spieth played like a seasoned veteran, seemingly at ease in one of the most intimidating sports events in the world.”I was nervous but I enjoyed it,” he said . “I was embracing it and I was taking less club, I had adrenaline. I had a great time out there today.”
Spieth has been earmarked for greatness for years. He twice won the U.S. Junior Amateur title and finished 21st in his first appearance at a major, the 2012 U.S. Open, when he was an amateur. Shortly after he turned professional at 19, he became the youngest player in 82 years to win a PGA Tour event and was named PGA Rookie of the Year in 2013.
“I’m very happy with the week, happy with the way my game is at going forward for this year,” he said. “I’ve accomplished one of my goals this year, which is to get in contention in a major. Hopefully going forward, I can do that again.”
Despite his incredible performance, the 6ft 1in (1.85m) Spieth was unable to hide his disappointment, believing he had the chance to win. He birdied four of the first seven holes to lead by two shots but was unable to keep it going, slipping back with three bogeys, as Watson raised his game.
Spieth dropped a shot at the eighth when he three-putted, then another at the ninth when his approach spun back off the green and rolled down the hill. He also made bogey at the treacherous par-three 12th, the middle leg of Amen Corner, when his tee shot rolled down a bank into Rae’s Creek. “I’m very, very pleased, but no doubt it stings right now,” he said.
If Spieth continues on his steep curve, he could well be a major contender for years to come, leading a new wave of players challenging Woods as the dominant force in the game.
It was perhaps ironic that Woods was absent at the Masters this week, missing his favourite tournament for the first time in 20 years because of a back injury. As his stranglehold on the majors has declined in recent years, a handful of players, including Phil Mickelson and more recently Rory McIlroy, have been prematurely anointed as his successor.
For most of his career, Woods’ main focus has been on beating the records of the men ahead of him, Jack Nicklaus and Sam Snead, but his biggest challenge could well come from behind. “I feel like I’m ready to win. It’s just a matter of time, “ said Spieth.