In the weeks before the Masters, Bubba Watson was already turning his focus toward the important stuff: Burritos.
Watson, 36, and the current owner of the green jacket that goes to the winner of golf’s first major each year, has always had a devotion for greasy foodstuffs. He is a connoissieur of Waffle House, for one, a millionaire athlete who is more at ease throwing down an All-Star Special than a filet mignon. He also has a sweetspot for cheap Mexican food.
“I eat plain,” Watson says. “I’m very plain.”
Here’s one story: Three years ago, Watson arrived at Augusta National Golf Club as a 34-year-old with no major championships to his name. In golf circles, he was a late bloomer, known more for his home-spun nickname (his given name is Gerry Lester Watson, Jr.) and his long drives than overwhelming talent. One week before the 2012 Masters, Watson and his wife, Angie, had adopted an infant son, Caleb, and that meant Watson was on his own at Augusta. For close to 10 straight days, Watson gorged on at least one burrito per day. Sometimes it was from Moe’s Southwest Grill, he says. Other times it was from Barberito’s, a fast-food chain in Augusta.
By late on Sunday evening, his nerves hardened by the moment and his stomached steeled by the mix of beans, rice and spicy salsa, Watson outlasted Louis Oosthuizen in a one-hole playoff and claimed his first green jacket.
The next year, Watson says, his wife and young son joined him at the Masters and the all-burrito diet was nixed. He finished tied for 50th. Last year, Watson reverted back to the burritos, and then outdueled 20-year-old Jordan Spieth on Sunday for his second Masters championship.
One year later, Watson is back as the defending champion for the second time in three years, and his mindset is pretty clear. “Maybe this year I should do all burritos again,” he says.
It is Masters week again here in Augusta, and this tournament could be defined by a number of story lines. Tiger Woods is on site, attempting to battle through a balky back. Rory McIlroy, the world’s No. 1 player, will attempt to win his third straight major and complete the career grand slam at the age of 25. But then there is Watson, purveyor of Bubba golf, the straight-forward smash-and-chip specialist, attempting to make his own history this week.
For the moment, Watson sits as just one just of 17 men to win at least two green jackets, and with another victory this week, he would join a more exclusive club. In the 78-year history of the tournament, just eight golfers have conquered Augusta National at least three times.
A repeat victory for Watson, a Florida native who attended the University of Georgia, would burnish his Augusta legend further, landing him among such stars as Jack Nicklaus (six times), Arnold Palmer (four), Woods (four) and Sam Snead (three).
For a player with just seven PGA victories and two other top-10 finishes in majors, it is lofty territory.
“If I did win it a third time,” Watson says, “(It) would be unheard of and something I’ve never dreamed of, because you know — I’m from a small town, a guy named Bubba, never had a lesson.
“I just see it as: What a dream it is to play on the PGA Tour, somehow now (I got) two Masters jackets. Pretty wild and pretty crazy stuff.”
In front of the lights and microphones, Watson is prone to reference his humble roots — his childhood in Bagdad, Fla., his self-taught game, the early years of his career spent under the radar. It’s a heartwarming story. It also helps grow the Bubba brand, which can be a polarizing force in golf.
For example: In an anonymous survey of 103 Tour pros conducted earlier this year by ESPN.com, players were asked which fellow golfer they were least likely to help in a street fight. Watson was the runaway winner, garnering 23 percent of the vote.
Of course, when Watson arrives here on Magnolia Lane, he will be nobody’s underdog. From a purely technical perspective, Watson is suited to excel amidst the rustling pine trees. He is extraordinarily long off the tee, averaging 309 yards per drive this season, which ranks second on the PGA Tour. And his left-handed, power-fade style sets up perfectly at Augusta, which traditionally rewards players who can control the ball right to left. There is a reason, of course, that the left-handed Phil Mickelson (a three-time Masters champ) also relishes his opportunities here.
“It’s Augusta National, so my juices start flowing,” Watson says. “And sometimes I’ve been able to pull off some of the shots that you shouldn’t be able to pull off just because of my energy level, and I get pumped up and I become a kid again. Even though I’m 36, I feel like I’m getting old. I still feel like a kid when I get to Augusta.”
This year should be no different. After a victory at the HSBC Champions last November, Watson enters the Masters ranked fifth in the FedEx Cup standings. In his last event, at the Cadillac Championship at Doral in early March, Watson finished third.
One week later, Watson was hitting the talk-show circuit, enjoying some laughs with Tonight Show host Jimmy Fallon. After all, being the reigning champ has its perks. For close to six minutes, Watson and Fallon talked about his growing family; late last year, the Watsons adopted a baby girl, Dakota. And, of course, they also discussed his favorite Masters superstition.
“It’s the mecca of golf,” Watson says. “Who doesn’t want to be able to play there; and then who doesn’t want to put on that green jacket.”
For Watson and his family, Augusta and the Masters can feel like another home. Well, as long as the line at Moe’s isn’t too long.
▪ WHEN/WHERE: Thursday through Sunday in Augusta, Ga.
▪ COURSE: Augusta National Golf Club, 7,435 yards, pat 72.
▪ TV: Thursday and Friday, 2-6:30 p.m., ESPN; Saturday, 2-6 p.m., CBS; Sunday, 1-6 p.m., CBS.