In what was a contender for the finest finish of the golfing year, Bubba Watson produced a quite extraordinary late flourish to win the HSBC Champions here at Sheshan and seize the first World Golf Championship title his of ever-colourful career.
First the maverick American holed a 30-yard bunker shot for eagle at the 18th to force a play-off with Tim Clark, then vanquished the South African on the same green by sinking a 20-foot putt that dived into the cup on its very last roll. This, to use the expression Watson used when he first burst to global fame with his 2012 Masters triumph, was ‘Bubba golf’.
As ever with Watson, the path to victory was seldom straightforward. It looked as if he had thrown away any chance of glory through his tribulations at the par-three 17th, where he left one shot in a greenside bunker and rocketed the next one straight over the green, but rallied spectacularly minutes later with his remarkable chip-in from the sand. He let out a primal, Ian Poulter-esque roar, knowing that his piece of inspiration had scattered the challenge of closest pursuers Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Rickie Fowler and unheralded Japanese talent Hiroshi Iwata.
It was a moment to remind us that when Watson is at his best, there is no more entertaining golfer to watch. “I didn’t know how to react, so I just screamed and lost my voice,” he said. “It was pretty neat – a once-in-a-lifetime shot.” With two Masters green jackets at the age of 36, he might have little left to prove, but Watson drew particular satisfaction from the fact that this was also his first triumph outside the US.
He was left to reflect on a year that has encompassed the ultimate high of Augusta, a stunning 64-64 finale to win at Riviera, as well as plenty of dross in between. At the Ryder Cup in particular, Watson was abject, but on a course that played to his greatest virtue of length off the tee he rediscovered some of his madcap magic.
The chasing Europeans could not live with him. McDowell, the pacesetter all week, came to grief with a messy closing round of 73, while Kaymer foundered with a slice into the water at the last. Only Clark held on for the play-off thanks to a superlative back nine of 33, but he was incapable of subduing Watson in this type of mood. The 38 year-old from Durban, who resembled a squat Charlie Chaplin with his ‘Movember’ moustache, was a pea-shooter alongside the huge-hitting Floridian. On the first play-off hole he was outdriven by 50 yards, and the difference in power proved telling as his tame layup left the stage clear for Watson to claim a decisive birdie.
Even in Shanghai’s autumnal gloom, it was a sparkling denouement. Only the concluding holes of this season’s US PGA at Valhalla – where Fowler, Phil Mickelson and Henrik Stenson all had their chances to beat Rory McIlroy on the back nine – could compare for sheer drama. It was also a refreshing departure from the flat-track bullying that characterised this event last year, when Dustin Johnson was able to win with a score of 24 under par. Watson’s winning score of 11 under appeared more in keeping with a tournament desperate to justify its billing as ‘Asia’s major’.
The frustration for McDowell, though, was acute. Having led almost from gun to tape, the Northern Irishman slipped back to a tie for third as his magical touch on these Sheshan greens deserted him. “The putter that was so hot early in the week kind of cooled off,” he admitted. “To finish in the style I did, I’m disappointed. But to be brutally honest, I didn’t have my A-game all week.” Watson, by contrast, happened to find his when it mattered most.