SAN DIEGO — Bubba Watson can still hammer a tee shot, with a homemade swing and a pink shaft and several contortions along the way. He sees the shot, then curves it into play.
He has done it at other major championships. He has two Masters victories. He has done it on the PGA Tour, where he has 12 wins in his career.
The U.S. Open? That’s a different story.
He has finished in the top 5 just once in this major championship, that coming in 2007 at Oakmont. Over his past 10 U.S. Open appearances, there’s been nothing better than a tie for 32nd. He has the missed cut eight times in his 14 appearances.
But on Friday, Watson made seven birdies on the South Course at Torrey Pines to move into contention heading into the weekend. His 4-under 67 puts him 2 shots behind co-leaders Richard Bland and Russell Henley.
“Whatever position I’m in, I made the cut, so that’s a bonus for me,” Watson joked.
But does he think he can win?
“It would mean more than what Phil Mickelson did [at the PGA Championship] or Phil Mickelson winning [this U.S. Open],” Watson said. Let’s be honest … Bubba Watson is not supposed to win the Masters and somehow I did it twice. Then throw in a U.S. Open? I guess I could truly walk away then. It would be like winning the lotto, but I never bought a lotto ticket. It would be something special.”
He plans on enjoying the opportunity. The 42-year-old has been candid about his mental health and the struggles he has endured. This week he said he spoke with Matthew Wolff, the 22-year-old who took two months away from golf to focus on his own mental health.
“It’s probably more helpful to me than him just because I can hear it again in my own head, me saying it out loud, and I played pretty calm out there the last couple days,” Watson said. “So I guess it did work out for me.
“When I talked to people about my mental struggles, and the things that have happened in my life, it’s really helping me,” Watson said. “I wouldn’t say convince myself, but it reassures me that I’ve been down to the bottom and I am out of the bottom.”
Watson knows there are bigger things in the world than hitting a golf ball. And on Friday he did not come off as a man concerned about the weekend ahead.
“I really didn’t know what I was doing,” he said of his stellar round. “I was just kind of in the flow playing with two great guys [Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia], shooting the breeze, making fun of them and stuff. So it really took me out of my element. I didn’t know what they were shooting. They didn’t know what I was doing.”
Watson hit 9 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens and took just 26 putts. His seven birdies tied for the most he has made in any major championship round. The last time he did it was the 2018 Masters. His 11 birdies this week ties the most he has put up at this point in a major; he made 11 birdies at the halfway point in the 2010 PGA Championship, where he ended up losing in a playoff to Martin Kaymer at Whistling Straits.
It’s not just surprising he is in this position at the U.S. Open, where he has historically struggled. It is surprising, too, because of how he has played this year. His only top-10 came at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. His best stroke-play finish was a tie for 13th at the Valspar Championship. Last month, at the PGA Championship, he finished 80th.
“When you’re slightly off, the scores look like you’re way off,” he said. “I don’t feel like I’m way off. I feel like I’m charging. I got really tired at the PGA Championship, just exhausting, trying to make the cut on Friday with that wind. Then I got mentally tired. I was fried after that on the weekend. So I kind of struggled on the weekend there.”
Watson said he has been trying to keep it simple. So far, he’s doing it quite well.