Sports

Bubba Watson refuses to let his fear factor in as he rallies to win Northern Trust Open at Riviera

For a professional athlete competing at the highest level, Bubba Watson made an extraordinary admission on Sunday evening at Riviera Country Club.

He has fears. Lots of them.

He said he doesn't like crowds. He is unnerved by people yelling at him. He doesn't like to be touched. He said his shirt doesn't always feel right the way it hangs on his body.

Sometimes, he said, "I want to go and hide."

As for playing golf: "I see a shot and I try to hit it. I'm scared to death on most of them, but I try to hit it anyway."

Watson picked one heck of a profession to avoid intense scrutiny, but there is something about the game that also seemingly forces him to overcome everything of which he is afraid, and he did so once again with his usual flair in the final round of the Northern Trust Open.

His lead at the outset gone by the seventh hole, and trailing by two with four holes to play, Watson drew on whatever power he had from eight previous tour victories and two Masters triumphs.

He birdied the 16th and 17th holes, and then watched Jason Kokrak — the winless, tenacious player who wouldn't fade away — burn the edge of the cup on a 15-foot birdie putt at 18 that would have forced a playoff.

For the second time in three years, Watson scaled the steep steps up the clubhouse as Riviera's champion, winning with a final round of three-under-par 68 and total of 15-under 269 — the same score from his 2014 title effort.

Kokrak, with a closing 68, tied for second at 14 under with Adam Scott (67), who made a dramatic late run of his own with a routine birdie at 17 and a roar-inducing chip-in from 25 feet for birdie at 18.

The $1.22-million victory was the ninth of Watson's PGA Tour career, giving him more wins since 2009 than anyone but Rory McIlroy, with 11. Watson passed Tiger Woods, who's had eight in that stretch.

Watson also rose to No. 4 in the world rankings, passing his good friend Rickie Fowler.

Watson, 37, got a needling text from Fowler when the 27-year-old vaulted over him in the rankings with his January victory in the United Arab Emirates.

"So maybe I need to send him a text real fast next week before he passes me again," Watson said.

For whatever reason, Watson has always played better from behind. Only two of his eight previous titles were won as the 54-hole front-runner, and though he led going into Sunday, he found himself playing catch-up on the back nine.

In a two-shot swing on the difficult par-four 13th hole, Watson bogeyed after missing the green from the middle of the fairway and Kokrak stuck a great second shot to four feet and made birdie.

But Kokrak three-putted for bogey at 15, and then Watson charged. He striped his tee shot to close range for birdie at the par-three 16th, and rifled a second-shot two-iron onto the green at the par-five 17th for a two-putt birdie.

"He played a great round of golf," Kokrak, 30, said. "Handled himself very well and made a couple of nice putts on the back nine."

It was an eventful week for Watson, on and off the course. Beyond the kidney stone he said he passed on Monday, he met the cast of the TV show "Girl Meets World" and attended the Clippers' game Saturday night, where pop star Justin Bieber and boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr. were among the stars he chatted up.

Watson joked that meeting Bieber was bigger than winning the trophy, but in reality these victories and how he achieves them are truly personal outcomes.

"We've worked hard. I'm going to have mistakes," Watson said. "I'm going to have setbacks and I've got to move forward from that, and that's what we've been working on.

"These nine victories are all because of that. Nothing's fell in my lap. I've had to work hard for all of them, and it's my mind-set [being] in the right spot."

Fear lost again.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times
A version of this article appeared in print on February 22, 2016, in the Sports section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "NORTHERN TRUST OPEN - FEAR FRACTURER - Watson breaks through his admitted anxieties to rally for second win at Riviera in three years" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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