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Riviera gets a deserving champion in Bubba Watson

Bubba Watson, the 2012 Masters champion, wins the Northern Trust Open at fabled Riviera Country Club. The course makes the tournament more than just another stop on the PGA Tour.

February 16, 2014|Bill Dwyre
  • Bubba Watson celebrates after sinking a birdie putt on the 18th green to win the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades on Sunday.
Bubba Watson celebrates after sinking a birdie putt on the 18th green to… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)

The stars aligned just a bit more perfectly Sunday at Riviera Country Club. A golf tournament of considerable stature got a champion of the same.

When Bubba Watson walked up the 18th fairway, clearly in charge in the Northern Trust Open, the figurative embrace he received from the gallery circling the green in one of the finest natural sports amphitheaters there is, he brought a sense of deserving.

Riviera, with lore that includes the Hogans, Palmers, Sneads, Couples and a Tom Watson, deserved another Watson. Bubba Watson, who made a shot to win the 2012 Masters that will never be lost in golf's lore, deserved Riviera.

Yes, there will be an occasional John Merrick and Len Mattiace, walking away with the trophy. And when they do, as they have, they are eminently deserving and should be properly congratulated.

But in the best of worlds, Riviera demands more.

It is a tournament that has changed sponsors frequently over the years but never lost its essence. It is the L.A. Open. Period. Has been since 1926. Filling in the current sponsor name will never change that. The L.A. Open, under whatever banner, is not just another tour stop.

Nor is Watson just another tour-stop winner.

He has a history, a flavor, a story that fits nicely along the walls of this legendary clubhouse. His history is now this tournament's history. He gets a piece of Riviera and Riviera gets a piece of a proven winner, as well as a piece of an impossible 90-degree, hooked approach shot out of the woods and onto the green to win the 2012 Masters.

A golf course that usually demands it to win got a player with a flair for the dramatic.

This was Watson's fifth PGA Tour victory. Three of them were in playoffs, including the Masters. The other was a one-shot win in the 2011 Farmers Insurance Open at yet another special course, Torrey Pines. That one also had a touch of drama.

With Watson finished, only one player could catch him, some guy named Phil Mickelson. Mickelson had to make a birdie on the 18th to do so, and to achieve that, he had to chip in from 74 yards. Mickelson surveyed the scene, carefully chose his club, then sent his caddie, "Bones" Mackay, onto the green to tend the pin. Some saw that as arrogance, others confidence. He missed by only a few feet.

Afterward, Watson summed up perfectly.

"It was Phil Mickelson," he said. "He can make any shot he wants."

About the time Watson was winning Sunday, the Masters was announcing that storm damage in Augusta, Ga., had destroyed one of the course's landmarks, the Eisenhower Tree along the 17th fairway. It was so named because the former president, an avid golfer, hit it or landed behind it so many times that he asked for the tree to be taken down. The Masters, correctly and delightedly, said no.

Watson was told about it and asked to comment, which was appropriate. It was Masters tradition and so is he.

Before it was torn down, the tree was 210 yards away from the tee. Watson, who hits seven-irons that far, smiled, voiced regret for the loss of something that helped make the Masters famous, and said, "It never got in my way."

Nor did much of anything over Watson's final 36 holes at Riviera.

He played his first two days in one-under par and made the cut by just two strokes. He played his final two days in 14-under (64-64), making no bogeys and seven birdies each day.

"I went into the weekend just trying to play solid golf," he said. "Just build on it, build on the future."

The day's final threesome made no run. Leader William McGirt shot 73, and his playing mates, George McNeill and Charlie Beljan, shot 71 and 73, respectively. Brian Harman and Jason Allred also contended and hung tough with 68s.

That meant nice paychecks for all, but no trophy.

Another past Masters champion, Charl Schwartzel, made an early run with a 31 on the front nine, but faded to 37 on the back. Long-hitting Dustin Johnson finished two groups ahead of Watson and provided the target with his 66 and his total of 13-under.

So the buzz grew for the Bubba arrival on No. 18. He stood at 14 under par.

You can't see the tee from the 18th green amphitheater because it is behind a hill. But the greenside scoreboard gave fans a view, and when Watson cranked his drive and quickly picked up his tee — golf body-language for "he likes it" — the ending was inevitable. The boisterous fan reaction showed that they knew.

He had driven it 315 yards, in the middle of the fairway, on a par-four hole that played 479, uphill. That put a wedge in his hand — yes, a wedge from 164 — and with players of this caliber, needing merely to hit the green with a wedge and two putt, it was game over.

Watson, of course, added his usual pinch of spice. He sank the birdie putt from 13 feet 7 inches and the victory, worth $1.206 million to him, was the drama king's largest-ever margin of victory. Two shots.

All that was left was to say the right things, to recognize where you were and that you understood what you had done there. He did exactly that.

"What an honor, what a privilege, what a blessing," he said. "The history behind this tournament, the history behind some of the great names as champions here."

The verb in the sentence never came. It wasn't needed. We got it and so did Bubba Watson.

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