CROMWELL, Conn. – Bubba Watson considers Connecticut his second home, and who can blame him.
Bubba notched his first PGA Tour victory at TPC River Highlands in 2010 in a playoff with Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin just two months before his father died of cancer and immediately showed what it meant to him. CBS commentator Peter Kostis had to wait about a minute to be able to start his interview as Bubba sobbed as his face was buried in his wife Angie’s shoulder.
Watson, the jovial long hitter from Baghdad, Fla., triumphed again in 2015 and 2018, besting Paul Casey each time on the way to earning $4,735,000 in 14 Travelers Championship starts that could buy a few of the lovely townhouses lining the golf course. But Bubba has also been the biggest donor to Connecticut’s premier sporting event, starting in 2016 with the $100,000 that he gave to the Bruce Edwards Benefit Dinner that raised more than $1.1 million in honor of the Wethersfield native and longtime caddie of Tom Watson who died of ALS.
Watson then donated $200,000 of the $1,260,000 that he earned in 2018 so the tournament would have a profit of $2 million that “sounded a lot better than $1.8 million,” a smiling Bubba said at the time. Then in February, he gave $25,000 toward the $1 million being raised by Travelers to help rebuild part of the Hole-In-The-Wall Gang Camp for kids with serious illnesses in Ashford that burned down. Amazingly, it took only four days to reach the target.
“There were a lot of things that Travelers was going to amp up (after becoming the title sponsor) in 2007, so golf was the last thing they were worried about,” Watson said. “It brought a different atmosphere, and the crowd and community got behind it. And then finding my way through life, you do different things that are so impactful and meaningful. Going to different places around here like the Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, seeing and feeling the energy of the kids, listening to the songs that they sang for me and my wife at lunch was amazing. And having my dad watch my first win to go with so many things that have happened with my family at this place means so much to us and gets me energized.”
Watson was plenty energized again Friday when he shot a second 4-under-par 66 that included a 60-foot birdie bomb on the seventh hole that moved him into a tie for second with first-round co-leader Kramer Hickok (69), who made a double-bogey 5 at the 16th hole to fall out of the lead. They’re one stroke behind Jason Day, whose bogey-free 62 was the low round of the tournament.
Bubba wasn’t even upset about a three-putt bogey on his final hole, No. 9, perhaps because he was fortunate to make a birdie at the par-4 second, where his driver head flew off his neon pink shaft mid-swing but still went 295 yards in a morning drizzle.
“Yeah, it was a perfect tee shot right down the middle,” joked Watson, who discussed his mental issues the past few weeks. “Chipped it in there and made the putt (from 10 feet) for birdie.”
Watson said the last time he could recall a driver breaking was at the 2015 Presidents Cup in South Korea, and he luckily carried a back-up for such a scenario. The two-time Masters champion seemed relieved no one in the large gallery following him, Paul Casey and Phil Mickelson ended up being hurt by the broken club, though he added a jab after the fact.6
“Nobody has ever been hit by hit, and luckily DJ was just out of the way and it didn’t reach the crowd, so nobody got hurt, hit,” Watson said, referring to defending champion Dustin Johnson playing in the group in front. “Nobody in my group knew where the ball was. Once you hit, you’re focused on where the head goes. So, again, if I was going to hit anybody, I was hoping it would be Brooks (Koepka). But I missed him. Not that good an aimer.”
Watson got a new driver on the fourth hole, and a victory on Sunday would enable him to tie Hall of Famer Billy Casper for most tournament wins (four). Tournament officials were delighted Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, the only repeat champion (2001-02) who became the oldest winner of a major championship (50, now 51) when he captured the PGA Championship last month, each birdied three of the final four holes, including the last two, to make the cut on the number, 2-under 138. So did Koepka (136, including a 159-yard shot for eagle 2 at No. 18), Casey (138), Justin Rose (133), two-time champion Stewart Cink (135), Bryson DeChambeau (135), Patrick Reed (135), Zach Johnson (136) and Adam Scott (138). Koepka’s younger brother, Chase, playing on a sponsors’ exemption, missed the cut at 142.