AUGUSTA — Bubba Watson came into the 2014 Masters Tournament under the radar.
Well, as far under the radar you can be as a former Masters champion who plays with a hot-pink driver that's known for blistering tee shots.
Watson was as inconspicuous as possible for somebody who also moonlights as a trick-shot artist on ESPN's top play highlights and will forever be known for his impossible escape from the trees on No. 10 in a playoff at Augusta National Golf Club in 2012, that was followed by an emotional meltdown in the arms of his mother.
Watson was as unknown as anybody can be when you're frequently the star of a variety of commercials, endorsing one product or another, or has been seen wearing a shirt consisting of only a collar with overalls in a faux boyband.
And he's as low key as one can be when you've often been spotted driving a hovercraft, as well as the General Lee from Dukes of Hazzard fame.
He was as anonymous as anyone named “Bubba” can be.
So, now two years removed from his life-changing Masters win, Watson came back to the scene of his greatest glory in professional golf this week without as much of the white-hot spotlight beating down on him as a year ago. He was far from invisible in the days leading up to Thursday's first round of The Masters, but it didn't take Watson long to catch everybody's attention.
And it wasn't because of the bright-yellow golf shirt he wore.
Watson carded a three-under 69 in the first round. That left him in a three-way tie for second place, one stroke off the lead of Bill Haas.
“It was really solid. You know, my whole goal – I'm not trying to look at leaderboards,” Watson said after his round that has him tied with last year's green jacket winner Adam Scott as well as Louis Oosthuizen – the man he beat in the 2012 playoff to thrust himself into another level of stardom.
Watson admitted that the weight of playing as the defending champion affected him last year, when he barley made the cut and finished tied for 50th place following a Sunday 77. He said there's pressure anytime you play the Masters, this being his fifth tournament in the past six years, but it was even more intense as the defending champion.
“It's pressure. You're playing Augusta National, one of the best golf courses in the world. The best golf course in the world,” Watson explained before offering insight as to how this year is a little different, which could allow for more success. “The emotions are different because I'm trying to get the green jacket again. I had it, there's so much you're doing when you're defending champ, and my mind can't handle it. Adam (Scott) seems to be doing pretty well with it. But for me it was just overwhelming, the Champions Dinner, everybody still congratulating you, so I just never got the focus. I played really bad on Sunday last year.”
While the right frame of mind can't be underestimated, it would sell Watson's round short to say it was the only reason he shot 3-under. He came in with a plan, and for the most part Thursday, executed it.
But the most critical part to Watson's round was the lack of mistakes. He didn't make a single bogey. On the occasions his shots didn't land where he intended, he recovered to avoid green numbers.
“I don't want to give my secret, but I'm trying to just hit greens,” Watson said. “Today I missed two greens. I missed one by six inches, missed one by three feet. I putted both of those, made pars. So I'm just trying to hit greens. If I can hit greens that means I've hit good tee shots and I hit good iron shots, and just trying to make par from there and throw in a birdie here and there. And that's what I did today.”
Watson had three birdies, on Nos. 3, 13 and 15. On each of those holes he accurately directed his powerful drives and got on the green with a realistic chance at birdie. And when he wasn't putting for birdie, he was in good shape on his par tries. Watson estimated that his longest par putt of the day was from inside three feet.
“It was stressful. But I never had a long par-putt, I guess,” said Watson, who is motivated to play at his best to try for another green jacket. “I want the jacket again. I'm coming back with a different mindset, full of energy. I haven't had any media this week, because nobody cares about the guy a couple of years ago. So it's been good.”
So much for that. Hard to stay off the radar when you play as well as Watson did Thursday.
Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.