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‘New’ Bubba Watson overcomes his own head games for 2nd win at Riviera

Bubba Watson, who says his "mental game is always down," maintains his cool to grind out his second Northern Trust Open victory.

The Arizona Republic-USA TODAY Sports

Bubba Watson has been promising for years to "get better as a person," which in Bubba-speak, seems primarily to mean keeping his cool during a tournament despite the myriad on- and off-course distractions.

There were certainly reasons for his late-2014 pledge and so-called "bad press," what with his petulant refusal to enter the fan-friendly long-drive contest and whining like a spoiled brat about the rain at the 2014 PGA Championship.

Many of us are unlikely to forget Bubba’s instant classic, "Water on the club face, bro ... water on the club face."

There have certainly been other memorable Bubba sound bites since his pledge ahead of the 2014 WGC-HSBC Champions event in Shangai to "keep grinding away" at the task of self-improvement.

Last week at the Northern Trust Open, the guy CBS analysts kept referring to as "the new Bubba Watson" put his vow to the test and walked off the 72nd hole with an A+ -- and his second victory at a tourney where Tiger Woods has played 11 times (twice as an amateur) without a single W.

Consider his club-dropping second shot on the par-4 13th.

Things could have gone totally awry for the notoriously thin-skinned two-time major champion. His next shot -- an interesting flop shot to the green -- elicited "Wow!" "Are you kidding?" "Was he showing off?" and "Maybe a little frustration I think" from the experts in the TV booth, and then led to a two-putt bogey.

Instead of derailing his round, as such irritations might have done in the past, Watson went on a late-innings surge that included back-to-back birdies on Nos. 16 and 17, to hold off Adam Scott and sew up his ninth PGA Tour win.

The victory also made Watson an early favorite to earn his third green jacket seven weeks hence and he addressed his newfound maturity after a final-round two-under 68 gave him a one-shot triumph over a hard-charging Scott and Jason Kokrak.

"Like I've always said, the last five years have been really tough," Watson told reporters. "The physical game is not the problem. It's the mental, and it's staying focused. "It’s staying focused on each shot. I'm thinking about dinner, I'm thinking about basketball games, I'm thinking about -- nobody knows this yet but I passed a kidney stone at the golf tournament on Monday. It's focusing on the golf shot. Last few years been working on it, slow process, but hopefully I'll get better at it."

Watson is also not one to forget slights, real and perceived, so he took the time to set the record straight about the adverse publicity he stoked with remarks he made ahead of finishing T14 at last month’s Phoenix Open. On the receiving end of even more booing and hectoring than is normal for the rowdy spectators at the Wasted Open, Bubba made it clear Sunday night that the wound was still festering.

"My confidence is always high. It's my mental game that's always down," Watson said about comments he made ripping the course and saying his sponsors were the only reason for his participation. "I knew I was playing well. In Phoenix I had a bad headline that a lot of people booed me but still finished 14th there with all that going on. I knew that my game is in the right spot and I just hope it stays that way and really the head is in the right spot."

However, this Sunday he blamed the media for putting a negative spin on what he said, and once back at TPC Scottsdale he took the onus on himself.

"I have to apologize, I used the wrong words," he said after the second round of the Phoenix. "I have nothing against the fans and the tournament. The fans have been great. I love coming here. I've lived here every winter for eight years. This is a beautiful place. And the reason why I'm here is because of the excitement around this golf tournament. The fans have been great. I used words that I shouldn't have used. I didn't explain myself well."

After his Northern Trust Open win, Watson was back on the offensive though sounding more than a little defensive in his stream-of-consciousness rant.

"I'm not over it," he said. "It’s heartbreaking that a city or community or local press would put [up] a headline to spur on a bad image. So it's hurtful. But that's where, like some of these other questions that I've been asked, you know, the reading that I'm doing, the team I have around me, with the ultimate goals that we have in life, that's where -- I shouldn't worry about what's said about me.

"Deep down, as the human side of me, yes, I'm pretty mad about it, but I've got to get over it. I've got to man up and be a better man, and with those comments, I've got to figure out how to answer things better, you know, all the stuff going on in my head we've been working on in the last 11 years of PGA Tour life, I've got to get better at it. ... I think I've made the right steps, but it's still going to pop out. The bad stuff is going to pop out every once in a while."

In the meantime, it’s on to Doral next week for the next leg of Bubba's Augusta warm-up.