MARANA, Ariz. — A decade ago, Bubba Watson returned to Augusta National Golf Club as the Masters Tournament’s reigning winner. Back then, he seemed to be known as much as the champion who had cried as the one who had beaten Louis Oosthuizen in a playoff.
He tied for 50th in 2013, and then he won another green jacket in 2014. Now, after leaving the PGA Tour last year for LIV Golf, the circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to persistent questions about the kingdom’s intentions and its human rights record, Watson is the captain of the only LIV team that will have all four of its members competing this week in Augusta, Ga. Tournament play for the Masters, the year’s first men’s golf major, will begin on Thursday. It will be Watson’s first major since he played in last year’s P.G.A. Championship and then had knee surgery.
In an interview last month near Tucson, Ariz., Watson, 44, reflected on Augusta National, the turbulence surrounding LIV and what he is expecting at Tuesday’s dinner for past Masters winners.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
There was no guarantee LIV players would be invited to play this year’s Masters. Did the possibility of exclusion weigh on you?
It entered my mind because people asked questions. It never entered my mind like I thought they wouldn’t let past champions play. Their club is built on history, right? When you think about history, that’s one of the things they sell to the masses. They tell you past champions can play here until they call it quits. They honor the past, and so I thought for sure I was going to be able to play.
Now, you start having doubts when you see stories and people are asking you more questions. But in my house, I thought for sure we’d be able to play.
Have you played Augusta since your meniscus surgery?
I was just there. What was interesting was No. 13, the new tee box. It’s amazing to me how they can make it look like it’s been there for 100 years. If you know 13, they had that stone wall, and they took it apart like a jigsaw puzzle and put it back together — they just moved it back.
I was so focused on 13, I didn’t even think about 11: It’s been moved back, but shifted over. That helps me out tremendously being left-handed and wanting to cut the ball. I can swing for the fences, and the fairway’s a little bit wider.
Thirteen, I thought was very hard. It was into the wind when I played it. I hit it around 310, and I still had 230, 231 to the flag. I played two rounds, and so I think I had 226 and 231, and I hit 3-iron and a 4-iron, so it was a real golf hole.
Watson hits from the trap on the second hole during second round play at the Masters in 2019.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times
Augusta is one of golf’s tougher walks. How did your knee hold up?
I’m 100 percent. There’s no swelling, there’s no pain. But if I play bad, I’ll say it was the knee.
This will be your 15th Masters, and you’ve missed the cut just once. Beyond Augusta, you’ve played 42 major tournaments and missed 19 cuts. What is it about Augusta that works for you?
As a kid, this is the one you always look at, this is the one you always see. You watch this course every single year, so no matter how old you are, it’s the same venue every time, so you get to practice and prepare. They don’t trick up the course with high rough, thin fairways; it’s just weather that’s really going to dictate how tough it is.
Seeing it year after year, wanting to play there, knowing that I can hit hooks and cuts around trees, through trees because there’s not this crazy high rough. You can play out of the pine straw, you can play out of the semi-cut rough. It’s something that we know and we can hold in the back of our minds: miss it here, miss it over here. When you transfer courses year after year, you don’t ever have time to see that. That’s what makes the Masters the Masters. You’ve seen it for so many years. You know shots. You remember shots. Even if you’re not playing, you remember this, this, this and that.
But does it being at the same place risk complacency?
You can never rest easy with it. There’s something new every year. There’s conditions, there’s tee box changes, there’s adding a tree, taking away a tree. There’s always something going on there.
But it doesn’t matter how old you are, how young you are. When you go down Magnolia Lane, you’re a kid in a candy shop. It’s like it’s the first time you’ve been there.
When you get to No. 10, do you think about the playoff shot every time you’re there?
It depends on who I’m playing with. People will ask, even when the tournament is going on. The caddies tell me that people still ask when amateurs come and play throughout the year. They still want to see where I hit the shot from because it’s fresh on people’s minds.
Ted Scott, who was on your bag for your two victories, is now Scottie Scheffler’s caddie. How does someone like him help decipher Augusta when the pressure is greatest?
He’s a great green-reader. He understands the game, but a great caddie is a great reliever of stress. It’s so hard to be on that leaderboard every week, but when you’re there, you’ve got to have a guy on the bag — and Teddy is that guy — who can relieve stress, who can make you focus on something else. Or he’s got to learn your system and what makes you tick and then he’s got to focus on that.
The biggest key to a caddie is how you calm someone down. Bad moment, tough moment, pressure-packed moment, whatever that is, they’ve got to be able to calm you down and get you dialed back in to where you’re supposed to be. Green-reading is nice. Getting the yardages correct is nice and the wind is nice, but it’s really when you’re under pressure. If you’re like a Scottie Scheffler or one of these big-name players who are going to be there a lot, he’s got to be able to get you locked in and focused on the right things. That’s what Teddy does so well.
When you won in 2014, a runner-up was a Masters rookie named Jordan Spieth. In two of the last three years, we’ve seen Masters rookies finish second. Is Fuzzy Zoeller’s 1979 victory-in-debut one of those things that people will get close to but not actually achieve again?
It’s definitely going to happen. History is meant to be broken. You never thought Aaron Judge was going to do what he did, right?
I think what holds some of the guys back — I know it holds me back — is thinking about where you’re at. Am I ready for this? And then you lose what got you there. You’re over a putt and thinking about winning instead of thinking about the putt, or you’re over a shot and you’re not thinking about the shot and you’re thinking about the big atmosphere that you’re in.
The veteran golfers are like, “I’m not failing no more. I’m going to focus.”
You first hosted the dinner for past champions a decade ago. What kind of vibe are you expecting at this year’s gathering?
It’s great every year, and the celebration of Scottie is obviously about the Masters, but he’s been playing so well, winning all these tournaments, I think it will be a blast. And having new blood in the locker room, it’s always interesting. People will throw out stories.
I think the vibe is going to be great. I’ve talked to Scottie a couple of times. I can’t wait.
So you’re expecting a normal vibe at Augusta for the week?
You said Champions Dinner!
Let’s go more broadly: Do you expect a normal vibe at Augusta?
No, and the reason why — the sad part — is we’ve got to get clicks, man. They’re going to ask tough, hard questions, questions that mean nothing about the Masters, and that’s the sad thing. We need to focus on the Masters.
If you’re on that organization, I’m on this organization, we’re going to be friends. Like, I’m not upset with you. I love the PGA Tour. I think [Commissioner] Jay Monahan has done phenomenal. I chose a route that’s best for me and my family and more fun for me and my family. A team atmosphere is what I wanted to do.
It’s the questions that I think will draw the cloud or the smoke. But in the Champions Locker Room, we’re all champions. We’re happy we get to go to that dinner every year. We’re all going to be wearing a green jacket.
Did anyone tied to Augusta National pressure you not to join LIV?
Not one person. I’ve talked to many members. They had plenty of opportunity to say stuff to me, and I think they just know that I’m a different seed.
If there wasn’t a team element to LIV, would you be here?
I would not be. This league has been thrown around for many years, and team is what we all strive to do. You have high school team, you have college team, and then pros, you’re on your own.
Was there a moment in your career when you realized, “If there’s a team format I could play on regularly, I’d jump on that instantly?”
You don’t think about it. But here’s the follow-up to this: As a kid, I never dreamed of the Olympics, and now I’m an Olympian. Things evolve, things change. In 2012, 2013, I never thought about a league with a team atmosphere.
I asked former President Trump last year whether he had entertained any second thoughts about hosting LIV events given the noise surrounding the series and Saudi Arabia’s human rights record. Did you ever have any hesitations, any misgivings about joining LIV?
I prayerfully do every decision in my life, and we think about it. There are very few that I do right away. It was think about it and see what it’s like. My close friends, my close family, they know what I’m about. They know that I want to help.
So, yeah, it was a hard decision because of the backlash. Is the backlash warranted? Maybe not to a certain level, but we all have questions and want to have answers. It was a tough decision, but at the end of the day, I’m so thankful I made that decision: more time with my family, more time with trying to grow a business — this is awesome, this is a fun thing — and then the three boys and the people around them and their caddies, I get to try to help them.
You’ve said you don’t read the newspapers, don’t pay attention to what is said in the press. Do you hear people who are skeptical or critical of your choice?
I try not to watch Golf Channel because of things said. They say things that are more negative than positive, and I want positive things in my life. But then Scottie Scheffler and Teddy get keeping on the leaderboard, so I’ve had to pull for them, right? We went to Bible study together! I have to watch it.
But I try to get off of it. Going to the ESPN app and they’ll say stuff about golf and you want to click on it, but you just see the headline and the headline is like, “World is coming to an end in the game of golf.”
You were in the spotlight for a long time on the PGA Tour. Does the spotlight on LIV feel different?
Outside the U.S., LIV is loved. It’s a great atmosphere. Look at how many major champions there are, look at how many Masters champions, and people want to see us.
In the U.S., it’s being blocked from negative press. Unfairly? 100 percent.
Who is the best player in the world right now?
Cameron Smith, Dustin Johnson, they’re definitely up there, don’t get me wrong. There are other guys in our league who are up there, but right now, Scottie Scheffler just keeps doing it.
The one that really upsets me — I’m going to talk to Jay Monahan, I still text with Jay Monahan — but the PNC, the parent-junior event. That’s the only thing: It’s a part of the tour but not really, so that’s the one thing, going back on this, I wish me and Caleb could play in it.
Just give me one wish. That would be my wish.
More than a third green jacket?
I think I have a better chance of winning the green jacket right now than I do playing that. I’m in the field. I’m not in the other field.