"Most of us know our limitations," says Bill Haas. "I think Bubba feels like he doesn't have any."
In his third-round match at Dove Mountain against Geoff Ogilvy, Watson struck a tee shot on the par-5 11th that traveled 320 yards, leaving him 287 yards to the pin. "I was just in front of him and was thinking I'd have to hit a three-wood," recalls Ogilvy. "So when he pulled out his three-iron, I was a very interested spectator."
At 6'3", 180 pounds, Watson is rangy and flexible enough to extend his hands high over his head, generating ferocious clubhead speed on the downswing. Taking one of his trademark rips with that three-iron, he cut a low, boring shot that carried 240 yards despite never getting more than 25 feet off the ground. Bending inside a bunker, the ball bounced onto the green and rolled to within 10 feet. Ogilvy hit into a sand trap and eventually conceded the eagle. Watson closed him out three holes later.
"It wasn't a shot I could imagine anyone playing, until he played it," says Ogilvy, a two-time winner of the Match Play and the 2006 U.S. Open champion. "It wasn't in my scope of understanding. But that's what Bubba does."
Luke Donald won the event; Watson was knocked out in the semifinals by Martin Kaymer, who as a result of that victory ascended to No. 1 in the World Ranking. No less notable were the early-round flameouts of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, whose exits underscored the sense that there is a vacuum atop the sport. Is Watson a candidate to fill it? "I'm gainin' on it," he says. After going winless in 121 PGA Tour events (and 63 Nationwide starts before that), he has won twice in his last 20 outings. He is 17th in the World Ranking.
"The battle for Bubba has been learning to deal with the circus that comes with the PGA Tour," says Ted Scott, a former mini-tour player who has been Watson's caddie since his rookie year. Long known as one of the Tour's most talented players, Watson was not among its more mentally resilient.
"I let stuff get to me," he admits. "Situations or fans or weather or other people would get in my head." These days, he's more focused, better able to let the distractions—the crinkling of a bag of chips during his backswing; the marshal scratching himself in his line of sight—roll off his back.
Also, his putting has improved. And, while still a thrilling player to watch, he's ever so slightly more judicious about attempting what his friend and fellow pro D.A. Points calls "the big miraculous shot." It all added up to Watson's first PGA Tour win, in a two-hole playoff at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., last June.
That victory, in his fifth year on Tour, unleashed a torrent of tears from Watson. "Coming from Bagdad, Florida," he said, "I never dreamed this."
Perhaps not. But he fantasized about it daily in his waking life.