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Long Watson waited a long time

Power hitter takes Travelers for first win

After coming close with four second-place finishes, an emotional Bubba Watson gets a hug from wife Angie following his first PGA Tour victory. After coming close with four second-place finishes, an emotional Bubba Watson gets a hug from wife Angie following his first PGA Tour victory. (Fred Beckham/Associated Press)
By Michael Whitmer
Globe Staff / June 28, 2010

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CROMWELL, Conn. — The closer Bubba Watson got to winning on the PGA Tour, the easier it became to deal with not winning. Faith and maturity played a role, perspective an even bigger one, since medical concerns frequently have that effect.

Sports are full of surprises, so on a day when almost nothing went according to script, the most shocking twist may have come at the end. Watson, who walks with a swagger, can come off as cocky, and is as hard on himself as his pink-shafted driver is on a golf ball, couldn’t keep the tears from falling after his par on the second playoff hole concluded one of the most unexpected days in Travelers Championship history.

By holing a 3-foot putt for par, Watson won the tournament yesterday in a playoff over Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin, who was eliminated on the first playoff hole. They completed 72 holes at 14 under par, an unlikely trio pushed to extra holes only after third-round leader Justin Rose let everybody chasing him duke it out by shooting 75. The six-shot deficit Watson overcame yesterday — he shot 66 — is the largest final-round comeback on tour since 2007.

Finally, Watson was a PGA Tour champion, and exposed a side that he’d seldom shown.

“I’m a very emotional guy. I couldn’t get the ‘I do’ out on my wedding day. The pastor said, ‘You’ve got to say it. You can’t just nod.’ So it’s emotional,’’ Watson said an hour after his victory, still fighting back tears. “My dad took me to the golf course when I was 6 years old, told me to take a 9-iron and beat it down the fairway.

“Now look at me . . . after beating a 9-iron down the fairway, coming from Bagdad, Fla. . . . I never dreamed this.’’

By winning for the first time after four second-place finishes — most recently in January at the Bob Hope Classic — Watson surely brought a smile to his father’s face, despite the pain it likely caused. Gary Watson was diagnosed with throat cancer in October. Two months later, Watson was worried that his wife, Angie, had a brain tumor. It wasn’t until May that the word came back: just an enlarged pituitary gland.

Dealing with those issues has changed her husband’s expectations and approach to his golf, even after two near misses this year, said Angie Watson, who played college basketball at Georgia and went to the Final Four with the Lady Bulldogs in 1999.

“It’s all sort of a process, but [almost winning] hasn’t been as hard this year,’’ she said. “I think he’s learned to accept it better. That’s why we’re standing here today.

“No matter what anybody says about him, he’s going to play the game his own way, and I think he plays his best golf when he’s doing that. It sort of translates into why the fans like that, because he’s creative and he’s fun to watch. It’s sometimes stressful for me to watch, but it’s fun for everybody else.’’

Watson provided plenty of entertainment over the closing holes. Birdies on the 15th and 16th holes gave him a one-shot lead, but he hit his tee shot on No. 17 into a fairway bunker, then advanced his second shot maybe 70 yards. Trouble was, it went into a lake. The stunning double bogey turned a one-shot Watson lead into a one-shot lead shared by Verplank (64) and Pavin (66).

Now needing a birdie on the final hole to tie, Watson uncorked a 396-yard drive (that’s no misprint), wedged to 5 feet, and calmly holed the putt. Watson, Verplank, and Pavin went back to No. 18 for the playoff, which Watson nearly ended when his approach from 125 yards took a peek into the hole and stopped an inch away for a tap-in birdie. Verplank’s birdie from 8 feet sent he and Watson to the par-3 16th for a second playoff hole, but his tee shot went over the green and he failed to save par. Watson ended it with his short putt.

“I’m disappointed that I made bogey there to kind of hand it to him, but I did a couple of crazy things on the back nine and got right there,’’ said Verplank, who made eagles on the par-5 13th (50-foot putt) and par-4 15th (holed bunker shot). “I wasn’t really thinking I’d have a chance to win, but lots of funny things happen.’’

Having Pavin in the playoff might be one of them. The 50-year-old will captain the US Ryder Cup team in October, and won the last of his 15 PGA Tour titles four years ago. He’ll return to the Champions Tour this week.

“It’s time to go back and play with adults my own age,’’ Pavin said.

If he was paying attention, as all good captains do, he might have noticed Watson. The prodigious drives are hard to ignore, but the 31-year-old showed he has the guts to pull off key shots when necessary, and, when the situation calls for it, isn’t afraid to show his emotions.

“You get nervous. You want to do something so good, you want to win,’’ Watson said. “People have different reasons why they want to win. I wanted to impress Corey Pavin so I could make the Ryder Cup, but that’s a whole different story.

“For me, getting in the playoff was unreal, and then to actually somehow make that par putt to win was unreal.’’

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