- Farrell Evans, Golf
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On Saturday night after his third-round 70 at the Masters, Bubba Watson stood behind the Augusta National clubhouse and told a group of reporters that he would be pleased with a top-10 finish.
"Somehow if I have a top-10 tomorrow, a top-5, I'll be happy," Watson said. "I'm just looking at consistency."
After 54 holes, the 33-year-old lefthander was just 3 shots off Peter Hanson's lead of 9-under par. With his prodigious length and creative shot-making ability, Watson could easily make up 3 shots on Sunday on the front nine. A top-10 seemed a low bar to set for a player who had two top-5 finishes in his first six tournaments of this year.
Of course, Bubba wasn't saying that he wouldn't be trying hard to win on Easter Sunday. He wasn't like Sergio Garcia, who had made a startling admission earlier that day after shooting a 75 that he wasn't "good enough" to win majors, and that he needed to "play for second or third place."
If Bubba had a chance to win the green jacket, he wouldn't lay up with his second shot on the par-5 15th as another former Georgia Bulldog, Chip Beck, did during the 1993 Masters.
No, Bubba's modest projections for himself on the eve of what would be one of the greatest days of his life were borne of an uncompromising belief in consistency and practicality over supersized guarantees that make for bold headlines.
With an unwieldy golf swing that yields some of the most imaginative shots in the game, the four-time PGA Tour winner might come off to some as a country bumpkin, but he's a shrewd professional who reaches for attainable goals. He's not in pursuit of majors and wins as much as he is stability and a long career on tour. A few years on the threadbare mini-tours will give you some real appreciation for the big show.
After winning the Masters and taking on all that comes with it -- a guest appearance on "Late Show with David Letterman" and a hero's reception back home in the Pensacola, Fla., area -- Watson hasn't changed his plan. For him, the Masters win was just a continuation of a theme of becoming a more dependable presence on leaderboards.
"My expectations are like every week: to play good golf," Watson said Tuesday at the Memorial, his first tour event in nearly a month and only his second since winning the Masters. "You can play great golf and lose a golf tournament because somebody else can play just a little bit better that week. So I'm just looking to play good golf, make all the cuts, have a chance on Sunday. That's the ultimate goal."
Taking the better part of two months away from the game to be with his infant son, Caleb, and wife, Angie, Watson has seen Jason Dufner, Rickie Fowler, Matt Kuchar, Zach Johnson, and Ben Curtis play some spectacular golf in his absence. Dufner's ascent to the top of the game has some eerie similarities to Watson's rise after he lost a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. Like Watson, Dufner has won twice in the year after losing the playoff at last year's PGA in Atlanta.
Though Dufner, Kuchar and Johnson aren't in the field this week at the Memorial, these players are not far from Watson's mind.
"Jason Dufner seems like he's doing pretty good," Watson said. "Zach Johnson is doing pretty good, Rickie is top-5 every week. I want to be that guy, too. I want to start top-10 all the time or top-20 all the time. Sunday afternoon, I want to have a chance to win a golf tournament."
If Watson is feeling the pressure of being the Masters champion, he's not showing it. On Tuesday, he didn't summon any of the clichés about wanting to win a boatload of majors. He still talks a like a humble man with a very high regard for the everyman on the PGA Tour.
"Who knows how I'm going to play, because I'm going to be rusty," Watson said. "It's going to be that way. I'm going to be down, I'm going to be up, I'm going to be happy, I'm going to be sad.
"You're going to feel the nerves for the first time in basically two months. … You're going to feel nerves that you haven't felt over a 3-footer. Right now a 3-footer is easy back at home."
Perhaps this talk is an aspect of the self-deprecating charm that helps him deal with pressure. For years, Watson has said that playing pro golf was a job that gave him a career with opportunities to make a good living. He once told me if he had been born rich, he probably wouldn't have ever tried to play the tour.
"Golf is not my everything," he said after the Masters. It was the first thing he said after getting his first win on tour at the 2010 Travelers Championship. And it's likely that Watson will continue to reinforce this mantra for the rest of his career. It's his way of saying that he doesn't place the same value on winning tournaments as some others might. The Masters or any other win can't barge into his life and change him as a person.
Still, Watson has a grander vision for himself. He likes the attention and the opportunity to talk.
"You know, for me, I just play the game of golf because I love it," he said. "I'm not trying to change the world by golf. I'm just trying to change the world by my influence and hopefully be a positive impact on a lot of people. Golf just gives me the avenue to do that."
Yet Watson needs to continue improving his game to have long-term success on the PGA Tour. His Sunday heroics in the playoff at the Masters were a once-in-a-lifetime feat. As a realist, he knows the odds are pretty slim of him consistently pulling off that shot at the 10th hole under the intense pressure of a major. He knows that fairways and greens are the prudent play.
Still, he'll take pleasure from giving the fans what they want when he hits it into the woods. "The more fans the better, because then I can show off more in some of the wild spots I hit the ball," he said.
Yet in the end, Watson the practical golfer with an aim set firmly on top-10s and top-20s will win out over Bubba the entertainer. It might not be the most grandiose posture to take for an ambitious player in his prime, but it's a workmanlike strategy that could help him take his game to another level of greatness.
Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at email@example.com.