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No longer wobbly under pressure, Watson in position to rally

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- They are separated by 10 years. And roughly 10 brain cells.

Bubba Watson towers over his flashy little buddy, Rickie Fowler, and they look entirely dissimilar. But as far as the fun factor goes, these two are definitely on the same page -- if not the same paragraph, sentence or word.

Bubba Watson is ranked 17th in the world after two wins last summer and taking second at the 2010 PGA Championship. (Getty Images)  
Bubba Watson is ranked 17th in the world after two wins last summer and taking second at the 2010 PGA Championship. (Getty Images)  
Thus, Fowler is as disposed as anybody to explain why Watson has gone from being a guy who hadn't won anything of note in his entire professional career to arguably the best American player on the planet, all in a few months. Which, coincidentally or not, broadly jives with when Fowler joined the tour as a rookie in 2010. They're like the Skipper and Gilligan, so Fowler might deserve some of the credit for the decompression of the notoriously fidgety Watson, and the impressive play that resulted.

"Well, maybe because he's hanging around me, I don't know," laughed Fowler, 22. "Once he started hanging around me, he started playing well."

The last part, kidding aside, is an insane understatement. He's played several notches above well -- bordering on indomitable. With a 4-under 68 on Saturday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, Watson moved into a tie for third, four shots behind leader Martin Laird.

No knock on Laird or Spencer Levin, the two guys ahead of Watson, but with one PGA Tour victory between them, if you're wagering your kids' lunch money on Sunday, the power-hitting lefthander from Bagdad, Fla., is easily the safest pick.

Has been for a few months now.

A year ago this week, Watson, now 32, was ranked 70th in the world. With two victories since last summer and a runner-up finish at the last major championship, he's climbed to No. 17 and seemingly he hasn't reached his ceiling yet.

"I think a lot of it is just confidence," said Fowler, who shot 70 and was forced to buy Watson dinner for shooting the lower round Saturday. "He just needed to get out and get some good finishes and feel good about his game.

"He's got a lot of talent and he can hit just about any shot he wants to, whether it be 350 [off the tee] or a flop shot. So all it had to be was just for the door for him to open and he's kind of taken advantage of that and is playing well."

Watson never won on the Nationwide and consistently blew chances on the weekend on the PGA Tour after being promoted in 2006. He had five runner-up finishes before winning last June. Now he's pushing Phil Mickelson, hard, for most-entertaining lefty honors.

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Sunday at Bay Hill, Watson was carving it around trees, running shots between bunkers and thrilling the galleries with his stratospheric missiles off the tee. Same as it ever was. A laser punch shot at the 16th incorporated elements of all three.

"A couple of years ago, when I was missing cuts, nobody cared when I hit those shots," Watson laughed.

Watson used to visibly wobble when the cauldron of competition really heated up. Earlier this year at Torrey Pines, however, he never wavered, saving par from a tough spot in a greenside bunker on the last hole to win. He's still not entirely comfy out there, which might be a good thing.

"It was funny, I was telling my caddie what hole, we were on 16 -- and I just hit that chip shot to two feet and I looked at him and I said, 'My stomach has been churning all day, I've been nervous all day, it feels like we are at a major out here, big crowds, tough conditions,'" Watson said. "I've been nervous all day."

The best score of the day was a 66, so Watson clearly had some magic working, although when asked what the best part of his game was, he didn't hesitate.

"I'm done," he said.

With the win at Travelers last June, he was just getting started. Of the players in contention, he's easily had the most chances to win dating to last summer. Laird and Levin have one victory between them, while Steve Marino, T3 with Watson, has never won on the PGA Tour. Fowler, tied for fifth with David Toms, has zero victories and Toms hasn't won in five years.

Meanwhile, Watson came from six back to win his first tournament last June. With high winds predicted for Sunday expected to turn the course into a torture track similar to Thursday's brutal first round, it's hard to predict whether it will help or hurt Watson. But he has raw power and brimming confidence to spare, which never hurts.

"It's a tough one to answer because it goes both ways," Watson said. "If you're hitting the ball great, yes, you can catch up easily, and if they hit bad shots. But we both have the same troubles and we both have the same bounces, and you have to play safe on some pins and you can attack on some of the others.

"It's a tough one to answer. If they shoot mid-60s, nobody will catch those two."

Same deal for Watson, except that he's more likely to be the one shooting the numbers.

Of the nine others tied for 10th place or better, Watson's the only player who has won in 2010-11, and four of them have never won at all. So when Palmer slips the tournament's trademark blue blazer on the winner on Sunday night, we're betting it will be on the guy who puts his left arm in the jacket first.

Even Fowler would be impressed. A little.

"Can't out-dress him," Watson laughed. "Young, punk kid."

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