Rabalais: Bubba's building his own green jacket tradition

AUGUSTA, Ga. — If you love golf, you know the line about the Masters:

A tradition unlike any other.

OK, that stuff gets a bit overwrought sometimes when it comes to this tournament, and I’m the most guilty person in that regard this side of Jim Nantz. But it happens because it’s a great sports event played on perhaps the world’s greatest golf course — certainly the most immaculate.

But it almost always produces great drama, among other things, hence the hype.

And hence Tradition No. 9:

“The Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday.”

We’ve seen it time and again around Augusta National Golf Club. A squadron of contenders buzzing and dive bombing up and down the leader board. So often the tournament comes down to the very last hole or, as was the case the past two years, it took a sudden-death playoff to decide the matter.

Leave it to Bubba Watson and his homemade lunge of a golf swing to dash that celebrated tradition in this particular Masters.

The record will show the 2014 Masters didn’t start until the back nine Sunday. It ended before Watson and his caddy, Ted Scott of Opelousas, threaded their way through a narrow corridor of Bubba-hooting rooters from the ninth green to the 10th tee.

Mr. Watson saw to that. In the name of left-handers everywhere and for the honor of his pink driver, he most certainly did.

Seventh hole. Golf wunderkind Jordan Spieth birdies to move to 8-under par and take a two-stroke lead over Watson. At age 20, he is 11 holes away from becoming the youngest Masters champion ever. It’s just the kind of story that makes us sportswriters drool, not that such behavior is tolerated at Augusta National.

But Spieth bogeys the par-5 eighth, a virtually unpardonable sin for a man who would win the Masters. Watson birdies, and they are tied at 7 under.

To the ninth hole. It’s quintessentially Augusta National. It can be birdied, yes, rather easily. But it can also be a golfer’s minefield.

Spieth hits his second shot up on top, which is like trying to stop a golf ball on your roof. But it doesn’t have enough energy to stay above the Blue Ridge foothill that defines the ninth’s false front and retreats all the way down to the base of the green, fortunate not to roll many yards further. Spieth chips up nicely three or four feet above the hole, but lips out a putt only slightly less delicate than back surgery (sorry, Tiger).

Watson, after another mammoth drive almost to the bottom of the valley on 9, hits up pin high, eight feet right. He coaxes the ball toward the hole with a feather duster, and it falls in the side on the last roll, taking a two-stroke lead over Spieth heading to the back nine.

And with that, the Masters was over.

Spieth has unbelievable talent. While nothing is guaranteed in sports, if he keeps his wise young head about him and stays healthy, he will win the Masters one day.

But what happened on No. 8 and 9 was a double sock to the midsection that would have overwhelmed even the most talented and seasoned campaigner.

Spieth shouldn’t feel so bad. Neither should his fellow runner-up and fellow Masters rookie, Jonas Blixt. Watson overpowered the entire field and the course, as well. When he’s hitting and putting and playing this confidently in this place, there’s little anyone can do.

Take the 13th hole, the 510-yard par-5. With claustrophobia-inducing pines and a lurking finger of Rae’s Creek, it could yield an eagle or force a double bogey.

Watson carved his left-handed slice around the left-leaning hole, over tree and babbling brook, 366 yards. He could have thrown the ball onto the green from there, but as it was, he wedged on and made birdie to get to 8 under and take a three-stroke lead over Spieth and Blixt.

He parred in from there, though he kept things sporting with a second shot from behind the trees, over a pond and across the glacial 15th green.

“Oh, he’s lost his marbles,” CBS announcer David Feherty gushed.

No, just playing Bubba Golf. He stubbed the chip but made the par and still led by 3, a great big Bubba grin on his face. He parred in from there, winning by the same margin.

Only one man, Horton Smith, who won two of the first three Masters in 1934 and 1936, earned his first two Masters victories faster than Watson.

It would be foolish to figure that he couldn’t win more.

Sounds like a new Masters tradition building.