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Bubba Watson bounces back ready for Shinnecock Hills

Bubba Watson tees off on the ninth hole

Bubba Watson tees off on the ninth hole during practice for the 118th U.S. Open Championship at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Sunday. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Bubba is back.

In 2016, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson was omitted from the Ryder Cup team, and that was followed by a plunge to 117th in the Official World Golf Rankings during a winless 2017 campaign when he underwent a precipitous weight loss as a result of an undisclosed illness.

At one point, Watson even considered an early retirement, but the 39-year-old with a flair for the dramatic has rebounded this season to win twice at fabled Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles and the WGC Match Play title while climbing back to 19th in the world.

“I’m just healthy,” Watson said after a practice session on Monday at Shinnecock Hills. “I lost 25 pounds last year. By losing the weight, I’ve lost the strength, I’ve lost the energy, I’ve lost the power for the golf swing to move the ball left to right and right to left. The whole key was just the sickness.”

Watson has declined to specify the exact nature of his illness, but he said, “I lost so much weight so fast that I couldn’t catch up. My body just wasn’t able to play golf. I was trying to improve. But it was just a bad year for me.”

He considers himself close to 100 percent now, but that doesn’t mean Watson believes he’s a threat to win his third major. He has a spotty U.S. Open record, missing the cut six times in 11 previous appearances. But he was fifth in the 2007 Open at Oakmont and finished 18th in 2009 at Bethpage Black, two courses that favor long hitters.

“I feel great about my game,” Watson said. “But just because you’re hitting the ball good, you could be one foot one way or one foot the other way [along the rough line and wind up] 30 yards off the green or five feet from the hole. That’s the beauty and that’s the challenge of this game in the U.S. Open.

“It doesn’t matter how great you’re playing. It’s about landing the ball in the exact spot that you need to land it in. So, yes, I’m very confident in my game and I’m looking forward to the challenge, but it’s such a fine line playing this golf course the way the USGA sets it up.”

At 7,440 yards, Shinnecock Hills is playing more than 400 yards longer than it did in 2004, and yet, the fairways are wider than norm for a U.S. Open course. That should favor a bomber like Watson, who currently ranks seventh on the PGA Tour driving distance (312.7 yards). Of course, he’s 124th in driving accuracy (59.90 percent), which explains his hard work on the driving range with his trademark pink driver.

Mention of the wider U.S. Open fairways sparked Watson’s sense of humor. “I can’t wait to find the wide fairways,” he said. “I know what you’re saying, and I agree they did widen some areas — but like on No. 1, we’re hitting an iron off the tee. It’s the widest fairway we play, but then the (519-yard hole par-4 No. 14) is one of the tightest we play. So, it’s funny how they’ve done it. But that’s the challenge of it.”

Pointing to his U.S. Open record, Watson said the added length in recent years obviously hasn’t helped him. In truth, he thinks it’s unnecessary.

“I think it’s sad that they have to add distance to golf courses,” Watson said. “Nobody is adding distance to the three-point line; nobody is adding distance to a football field. We’re the only ones adding distance.

“Just let the great players shoot their great scores. It’s something the fans want to see. But it’s only once a year at a USGA event. Gosh, as of right now, I don’t even know if I can shoot under par on these courses for four days. I would take even par right now and go home.”

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