A win for Watson when Mickelson plays it safe
SAN DIEGO – Bubba Watson has such a tough time keeping his mind from wandering away from golf that he walks with his head down. If he had bothered to look around on the final day at the Farmers Insurance Open, he might not have believed what he saw.
There was Tiger Woods, who had won the last five times he played Torrey Pines, finishing 15 shots out of the lead.
An even bigger surprise was Phil Mickelson, whose reputation has been built on his appetite for taking risks. He was standing 228 yards away in the light rough on the par-5 18th when he pulled out a wedge to lay up, even though he needed eagle to force a playoff.
Mickelson had his caddie tend the flag from 72 yards away – a smart move to keep the ball from hitting the stick – and his shot covered the flag, landed behind the hole and trickled to the cup until it stopped 4 feet away.
Watson missed it all.
He was in the scoring trailer Sunday afternoon, having made clutch putts on the last two holes for a 5-under 67. Watson knew he had a two-shot lead over Mickelson, and he knew the four-time major champion was capable of anything.
“I’m trying not to get too emotional,” Watson said. “I realize it’s Phil Mickelson. He can make any shot he wants to. He’s a great wedge player. I knew he had a shot at making it, so I didn’t want to get too excited. Over the radio, they said he missed it.”
And so concluded the PGA Tour’s first weekend of network television coverage, a broadcast that barely had a chance to show Woods, yet had no shortage of drama for the final two hours.
Watson took the outright lead with a birdie putt on the 11th hole and never gave it back, which doesn’t speak to the possibilities.
Jhonattan Vegas, the Venezuela rookie who won the Bob Hope Classic last week and has quickly provided extra star power on the PGA Tour, was one shot behind on the par-5 18th hole and in the light rough just under 220 yards away. He knew Watson only had a 7-iron to the green, and that his only chance was to stick it close.
It found the water.
“I tried to hit it close and put a little pressure on him,” said Vegas, who wound up with a bogey and a tie for third with Dustin Johnson.
Watson hit his 7-iron into a back bunker, a difficult shot with the green running away from him toward the water. He played out to the top of the ridge and watched it trickle to 12 feet.
And that’s when it got interesting.
Mickelson hit a poor tee shot, popped up and to the left, although it appeared to catch a decent lie to the rough, and he could clear the water in front of the green. It set the stage for a theatrical finish.
But as Watson studied the line of his putt, Mickelson grabbed a wedge from his bag and laid up. Given the slope behind the hole, he could easily get a wedge to tap-in range for birdie if Watson were to miss his putt.
Watson made it.
“I thought he was going for it,” Watson said. “When I looked back down the fairway and I made the putt, I didn’t want to get too excited because I thought it was him going for it. I didn’t know he had already laid up.”
Mickelson heard the roar and knew what he had to do.
The tension grew even more when he sent Jim “Bones” Mackay to the green to tend the flag, which looked audacious, except that it made perfect sense.
“About 10, 12, 14 times a year, I ended up hitting the pin with a wedge, and it ricochets all over the place and I didn’t want that to happen,” Mickelson said. “I also wanted to give it two chances. I wanted to fly it in, possibly, or I wanted it to skip past it and maybe bring it back and give it a second chance to go in and the pin would only get in the way of that.
“So I didn’t want to have the pin in if I was going to try to make it.”
Why not go for the green? Remember, this is the guy who tried to hit a fairway metal out of the rough, under the trees and over the water on the 16th hole at Bay Hill in 2002 when trying to catch Woods. Mickelson thought it was his best chance at winning, and that’s what he thought Sunday at Torrey Pines.
With the grain of the grass going into his ball, a hybrid would come out heavy and go into the water. A 3-wood would come out hot and go over the green, and making 3 from back there would take more luck than from in front of the green.
It just didn’t work out for him.
Mickelson tapped in for birdie and a 3-under 69, the kind of score he thought would win the Farmers Insurance Open.
“Bubba played some terrific golf,” Mickelson said. “I did what I thought would be enough, and it just wasn’t. Bubba played too good. He made great shot after great shot, and made putt after putt. It was a wonderful round for him.”
Mickelson’s runner-up finish moves him to No. 4 in the world, although he doesn’t need a world ranking to tell him his game is headed in the right direction.
Watson, meanwhile, needed this win to show his first one last summer in Hartford, Conn., was no accident.
“It just shows that I can do it,” said Watson, who finished at 16-under 272 and cracks the top 20 in the world ranking for the first time. “I did it twice now. I’m only 50 behind Phil and about 80 behind Tiger, so they better watch out.”
Woods, meanwhile, left Torrey Pines raising more questions about his game than Mickelson did about his decisions.
He had never finished worse than 10th at Torrey Pines, nor had he ever finished out of the top 10 in his season debut in stroke play. But after a 74-75 weekend, he staggered home in a tie for 44th.
“I have some work to do,” Woods said. “There’s no doubt about that.”