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Wednesday July 1st, 2015 8:00AM

Column: Can Bubba be more than golf's local hero?

By The Associated Press
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AUGUSTA -- He plays a sexy game of golf, owns two green jackets and - in what constitutes a show of major respect in these parts -Bubba Watson made rabid Georgia Bulldog fans take a break from spring football to watch some golf this weekend.

Asked which of those last two was the bigger accomplishment, Watson didn't hesitate.

"Well, obviously," he smiled, "you always say, `Go Dawgs!'"

As he was fighting for the lead at Augusta National on Saturday, the giant screen at Sanford Stadium cut to a shot of Watson, and the local fans went wild. Watson left Georgia a year early to turn pro, but made sure to credit everyone there who prepped him for life out on tour.

"I've done quite well since then," he said. "We can share it."

Watson might seem like the guy to carry golf's flag in the coming months, especially with the two most popular players of this era nearing the end of their careers. Tiger Woods, 38, is on the disabled list until late this summer and Phil Mickelson, 42, missed the cut here and has already curtailed his schedule to focus on the biggest events.

The absence of both over the weekend sliced a third off the Masters' traditionally hefty television ratings, and left center stage wide open.

In stepped Watson, who taught himself how to play, hits the ball a long way and likes to take risks.

"No one plays the way he does," said Rickie Fowler. "Hitting it as far is a big challenge, I can't shape it the way he does and his attitude is something else. He's always out there enjoying himself."

Watson is just as quirky off the golf course. He owns a hovercraft customized to look like a golf cart, he's a member of the first - and thankfully, only - rap group on the PGA Tour, and between his tweets and the memes he's inspired, he's built out a nice little online space.

But will he ever be more than a local hero?

The short answer: Maybe.

Watson sealed his 2012 win with one of the most dramatic shots in the history of the tournament, a high, hooking wedge from out of the trees on the right of the 10th fairway. Instead of cashing in on every opportunity, Watson laid relatively low. He and wife Angie had just adopted a baby boy, Caleb, and he acknowledged being a new father and a celebrity was tougher than expected.

"Golf was the farthest thing from my mind," Watson recalled. "So I took off some tournaments. Trying to be a good husband, a good dad at that moment was the most important thing."

Like more than a few major winners, Watson suffered a "championship hangover." He went 22 months without a victory and fell to 50th place on the money-winning list.

"Last year was rough with the pressure of trying to prove yourself," said Ted Scott, Watson's caddie. "But that's one of the neat things about him; at the end of every year he sits down and evaluates how he can get better."

Perhaps more important, Watson plans to hang onto the hunger that drove "a small town guy named Bubba" to collect two green jackets.

"We're trying to make the Ryder Cup team. We're trying to win the next tournament, the next tournament we play in, trying to make the next cut," he said. "So it's a lot different situation now than it was back then."

But Watson is already 35, and he's won just six times since turning pro in 2003. He's always been pegged as a "courses-for-horses" player, someone who needs a venue that fits his long, erratic ball-striking style to come out on top.

Jordan Spieth, the 20-year-old Masters rookie who was paired with Watson for the final round, might be the next guy to step up. Watson pulled away from the youngster down the stretch at Augusta, exposing some flaws in Spieth's game along the way.

"It stings right now, and the only thing I'm thinking about is when am I getting back next year," Spieth said afterward.

Spieth said he accomplished one of his goals, to contend in a major, and, "there's still three more this year."

But if Watson is serious about extending this run, Spieth may have to go through him again.

A day earlier, when Spieth came into the interview room as co-leader and said he planned to call Watson "Mr. Watson" when they went out Sunday in the final group, Bubba broke into a wide grin.

"That's fine," Watson said, "when I'm hitting it past him."

He did when it mattered most.
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