SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Most fans around the Waste Management Phoenix Open seem to have forgotten about the whole Bubba Watson debacle by now.
He’s one of the most recognizable names in the field and got a huge ovation when he stepped to the 16th tee box Thursday afternoon.
Watson’s relationship with this tournament was more contentious three years ago after he indicated sponsors were the only reason he was playing the 2016 event. He went on to clarify his issues, apparently more with the golf course itself due to a recent redesign, but the damage had been done and Watson was not warmly received.
That week ended with a respectable T-14 finish coming off back-to-back T-2 finishes in 2015-16, and now Watson is back in the mix this year thanks to a 5-under 66 in Round 1.
Unlike the majority of people in the house on Thursday, Watson apparently hasn’t forgotten how things went down in 2016.
“Well I lived here for nine years, so no matter what people say I actually love Scottsdale very much,” Watson said.
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The 40-year-old lefty doesn’t live in Scottsdale anymore, but he rolled into town a week early ahead of this year’s tournament. He’s a member at Estancia Club, located just 10 miles north of TPC Scottsdale, and got some work in coming off a disappointing start to the season in Hawaii.
“Just kind of going through the motions,” Watson said. “Just wanted to get out of winter weather and come here to the bubble of Scottsdale, which everybody loves, and hit some shots. Estancia’s always in great shape so I went over there and just tried to get some good solid practice.”
With a new putter, new driver and a new yellow Titleist Pro V1x golf ball in play, Watson put a solid round together. He’s T-6 and just two shots back of co-leaders Justin Thomas, Rickie Fowler and Harold Varner III entering the second round.
Watson gets to cruise through before the party really amps up Friday, teeing off at 9:50 a.m. ET alongside Hideki Matsuyama and Xander Schauffele.
Thursday he showed that while new bombers like Cameron Champ have arrived on Tour, he’s still plenty long off the tee. Watson averaged 337.9 yards on measured drives, second longest in the field, and also hit 10 of 14 fairways.
It was a strong turnaround from Watson’s underwhelming start to 2019 in Hawaii, where he was near the bottom of the Tournament of Champions field and missed the cut at the Sony Open.
“It was good, no bogeys,” Watson said. “Ultimate goal was to get better at the short game and putting, so that’s kind of what we tried to do this week with a new putter. It worked out so far, but it’s only the first day.”
Watson’s 2017-18 season will be a tough act to follow. He won three times amid a resurgent campaign, worked his way to Ryder Cup roster spot and now has 12 career victories on Tour. That’s a serious number. And for all the controversial things he’s said in Scottsdale and elsewhere over the years, he’s still showing up when it matters.