NORTON, Mass. — Following his best round in nearly two months, Bubba Watson revealed Thursday that he has needed to work more on his mind than his game the past year.
“I’d have to say it’s a lot more mental than people think. You know, life is hard — on course, off course,” Watson said following an opening-round 6-under 65 that put him in a tie for fifth at the Northern Trust, the first event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs. “A lot of people don’t talk about it that much. I went through a lot of mental issues. Still going through them, still going to battle them the rest of my life. Just trying to work on that part and trying to get more relaxed.”
Watson made seven birdies Thursday, which he said came from a change he made Monday. And it was one that had nothing to do with his golf swing.
“Truthfully, starting on Monday, it was working on my breathing, trying to get more relaxed while I’m out there,” Watson said. “Just thinking. The problem I’ve had, gosh, over the last year or so is just the mental part, the thinking. I’ve been trying to work on that. I knew my ball-striking was in the right spot. And again, we got three more days, so I could shoot 102 [on Friday].”
Watson, a two-time Masters champion who has 12 career PGA Tour victories, has missed four cuts in nine events since golf returned from a three-month shutdown because of the coronavirus pandemic. He entered the Northern Trust in 66th on the FedEx Cup points list, meaning he has work to do this week if he wants his season to continue. Only the top 70 players advance to next week’s BMW Championship. The top 30 make the season-ending Tour Championship.
“Again, that’s where the breathing comes in,” he said. “I started to work with, would you say, a breathing coach to try and breathe right so I can calm myself down, get the heart rate down. Really that’s what I’m looking at. The physical part, since I’ve been out here, since my rookie season … I can hit the shots. It’s coming down to how am I thinking that two seconds before I hit that shot.”
Watson has just one top-20 finish since golf’s restart, that coming in the first event back, the Charles Schwab Challenge in mid-June, when he finished tied for seventh.
“It’s just mentally, believing in myself, believing that I can play golf with these young guys,” Watson said. “I feel like I have the ability, I can hit the shots. It just comes down to thinking that I am good enough, thinking I am man enough to hit the shots and then trusting that I can make putts.”
Just to be sure his iffy play wasn’t physical, too, Watson reached out to instructor Claude Harmon to get another set of eyes on his swing and his putting.
“I reached out to him and I said, ‘Hey, is there any way you could just watch me and see if you see anything?'” Watson said. “Again, I always thought it was not physical, it’s mental. After two weeks I said, ‘Hey, it’s mental.’ And he goes, ‘Yeah, it’s mental.’ That was it.”
Watson said the issues don’t impact his life away from golf. When he’s in competition, he senses a difference.
“Off the course, I’m even keel,” he said. “I can kind of relax. But on course is where I get headless and I start going, [get] ramped up going too fast. So we are trying to slow down to where I am off the course. I guess as I get older, I get smarter, I realize maybe I should work on it. I work on putting and chipping. Maybe I can work on the mental part.”
He had just one bogey in his round Thursday. But if mistakes do creep in on Friday or over the weekend, he has a plan.
“Anything you don’t like, and then you just kind of start taking deep breaths, and you start, I won’t tell you my secrets completely, but you start breathing differently and focusing on those things instead of focusing on this over here,” he said. “You just kind of deflect a little bit. Obviously we all know; the world has proven that breathing properly and breathing the right way can definitely calm you down and relieve some stress or anxiety.”