The self-taught left-hander from the Florida Panhandle pulled off one of the greatest recovery shots of all time Sunday to set up a par on the second hole of a sudden-death playoff that was good enough to beat Louis Oosthuizen, who hit one of the greatest shots in tournament history earlier, and win the 76th Masters.
“I’ve never had a dream go this far, so I can’t say it’s a dream come true,” Watson said. “I got in the trees, hit a crazy shot I saw in my head, and here I am talking to you with a green jacket on.
“Well, I dreamed about it, I just never made the putt.”
Watson, 33, and Oosthuizen, a 29-year-old South African who won the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews, finished at 10-under-par 278 to force the 15th playoff in tournament history and fourth in 10 years. Watson shot a 4-under 68 that started with a three-putt bogey and included a string of four straight birdies in the middle of the back nine. Oosthuizen scored a rare double-eagle on his second hole of the day and shot 69.
Phil Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar and third-round leader Peter Hanson all finished tied for third at 280.
There were plenty of big shots in the round — there were two holes-in-one in addition to the albatross — but the swing that will forever be associated with this Masters was the recovery shot he pulled off on the second hole of the playoff.
After hitting his driver so far off to the right he barely could see the fairway, Watson reverted to the free-wheeling, go-for-broke form associated with guys like Phil Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros — “Bubba Golf,” they call it — and played a 164-yard shot that required 40 yards of bend like he was messing around on the range. When he saw how the patrons were starting to line up to watch it, he had no doubt he could pull it off.
Unlike a lot of the guys he competes against each week, Watson has never taken a formal lesson nor ever studied his swing on video. He’s a self-made champion and completely trusts his instincts, which is what made his miracle shot seem second nature.
The former Faulkner and University of Georgia player dusted off his 52-degree wedge and let it fly. The shot hit the green then rolled to the right before settling about 10 feet from the pin.
“The first time I ever worked with my caddie, six years ago, I told him if I have a swing I’ve got a shot,” Watson said. “I always attack. I want to hit the incredible shot; who doesn’t. That’s why we play the game, to pull off the amazing shot.
“When we got down there I said we’ve been here already and (his caddie) said if you’ve got a swing, you’ve got a shot.”
It wasn’t the first big recovery shot Watson had in the round, On 17, after bombing his drive into the walking area between 7 and 17 he hit straight shot over the trees and onto the green, making par to keep his share of the lead.
Even his playing partner was amazed with the shot in the playoff.
“I have no idea where he was,” Oosthuizen said. “Where I stood from when the ball came out, it looked like a curveball going to the right, so I knew he had to hit a big hook; an unbelievable shot. It was just brilliant the way he hit that second on 10. That shot definitely won him the tournament.”
Both players could’ve won it on the first playoff hole. Oosthuizen’s birdie putt just rolled over the right edge. Watson left his putt out on the left side; after it missed he held his hand out incredulously in the direction of his caddie as if to ask where was the break.
The playoff moved to 10. Neither player hit great tee shots. Watson took driver and bombed it deep into the trees on the right. Oosthuizen, feeling confident about his chances, dropped down to a 3-wood and then hit it right, but inside the tree line.
His 5-iron approach didn’t make the green and Watson set about to show off his creativity.
Oosthuizen chipped up to the back of the green behind the hole. His downhill putt looked as good as his putt on 18, but it slid over the lower right side of the cup and he tapped in for his 5. Watson two-putted for the win, but before he made the clinching putt he held his hand out as if to caution the patrons that this wasn’t over yet.
When the putt dropped, he teared up while bending over to get the ball. He hugged his caddie, his mother, and even close friends Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley who walked with the playoff group.
Watson’s recovery shot in the playoff notwithstanding, Oosthuizen hit one of the greatest shots in Masters history early in the round to overtake the overnight leaders.
He holed a 4-iron from 235 yards for a double-eagle 2 on the par-5 second hole. It was the first albatross ever on the hole in Masters play and the fourth in tournament history. The most famous double-eagle, of course, was Gene Sarazen’s shot heard round the world on No. 15 in 1935.
In one amazing shot, with Mickelson making par and third-round leader Hanson making bogey at the first, he went from two shots down to two shots ahead.
He said he had 210 to the front of the green. The shot landed in front of the green, took a couple small bounces, then started rolling and curling toward the hole.
“I never thought it would go in,” he said. “When something like that happens early in your round you think this is it, but it was tough the next five holes to just get my head around it and just play the course. I felt like I found my rhythm going down 11 and played well in from there.”
In the meantime, Oosthuizen made a number of clutch putts for par to keep his challengers at bay. He and Watson eventually separated themselves from the pack by 17 and parred the last two holes to force the playoff.
Coming into the day the tournament was said to be Mickelson’s to lose – and he lost it on No. 4, making a triple-bogey, double-par 6 on the par-3.
One shot behind Oosthuizen at the time and trying to play what he considered the safest shot into a tough pin, his 4-iron tee shot ricocheted off a grandstand railing into the bamboo left of the patron walkway. It went so far off-line he had to hit the next two shots right-handed. Going back to the tee wasn’t an option because he’d just have to hit the same shot.
The first attempt at recovery, he pushed it deeper into the foliage. The next shot squirted off the club like a shank, landing in a worn area with the bunker between him and the flag. He dumped it into the bunker, blasted out and putted for the 6 that left him four shots out of the lead.
“It happens, out here,” he said. “I’m sure everybody else had something, maybe not similarly, but … I wouldn’t have done anything different on 4. That’s strategically where you have to play it to that pin on that hole. It’s the hardest par on that hole.”
Even after the triple, Mickelson birdied the three par-5s to climb back into the conversation, but just couldn’t catch the leaders, who were off the make Masters history.
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.