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Bubba gumption: Watson makes spirited Sunday run, rebounding from last week's collapse

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — Bubba Watson provided the early fireworks — then went to watch the fireworks.

Watson, the two-time Masters champion, set the pace early in Sunday's final round of the Rocket Mortgage Classic, firing an 8-under 64 that for a brief moment put him atop the leaderboard at Detroit Golf Club.

Watson suspected it wouldn't last, and actually hoped his fate was decided sooner rather than later.

"Truthfully, I'm hoping Alex plays really nicely the next two," Watson said of Alex Noren, who happily obliged and finished at 17 under — which ended up a shot short of a three-way playoff eventually won by Cam Davis. "I'll get on the plane and see my kids tonight and watch the fireworks."

Bubba Watson birdied on hole No. 18 to shoot a final-round 64 and finish at 16 under at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Watson wasn't able to snap his three-year winless drought, but he continues to see his game trend in the right direction. He was the leader on the back nine Sunday a week ago at the Travelers Championship in Connecticut, before a rough stretch sent him spiraling.

He didn't dwell much on that meltdown, focusing on the positives — three-and-a-half days of good play.

And that's pretty close to what he had in Detroit, too. He made the cut on the number at 3 under — his first made cut in three Rocket appearances — and then charged his way up on the weekend, tying for sixth.

More: COMPLETE ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC COVERAGE

The Sunday 64, capped by a birdie at the tough par-4 18th, was more the exception than the rule in recent months for Watson. Consider this: Before this Sunday, his last eight Sunday rounds were 74, 72, 73, 72, 73, 80, 76 and 73, according to PGA Tour stats. In the final round at the Rocket, Watson bested that eight-Sunday average by more than 10 strokes.

"I've been playing good the last, I don't even know dates anymore, but last few months," said Watson, 42, a 12-time winner on the PGA Tour, most recently at the Travelers in 2018. "It was a nice way to finish even though I knew the score was — you know, they're going to lap it.

"It wasn't about trying to win, it was just about having a high finish just to get some momentum."

The performance was the best of the season since October at the Zozo Championship, where Watson tied for fourth. It was his fifth top-10 of the season, making eight birdies to no bogeys — though he didn't make birdie on either of the reachable par-5s on the back nine. Watson could've flirted even more with a championship, or at least the tournament scoring record; three men have shot 63.

The past two years, Watson has done his better work off the golf course in Detroit.

In 2019, at the inaugural Rocket, Watson donated $20,000 to the First Tee of Detroit, and last year, with no fans or pro-ams because of COVID-19, he organized a made-for-television exhibition that raised more than $1 million for the tournament's Changing the Course Initiative. Watson donated $25,000 toward the cause, which aims to end Detroit's digital divide by 2025. He is believed to have made a donation this year, too.

The guy from Pensacola, Florida, really has taken to Detroit.

"What Rocket Mortgage does, what Dan Gilbert has done for the city, what he's done all around the world giving back, being a leader in that area, I want to learn from people like that and try to strive to be better, right?" Watson said. "So coming here and helping every year, donating money every year to the city has been a dream and been fun for me to do my small part of just helping, just trying to help the city.

"So whatever I can do, coming here to play in a tournament or give money back like I've done every year, it's just something I enjoy doing because I look up to a man like that and a company like this."

Chips & divots

► SHOT OF THE DAY: Davis had a bunch to choose from on his back nine Sunday, but taking the top spot has to be his bunker shot at the par-5 17th hole. He found the greenside bunker short left of the green, but blasted out from 50 feet into the cup for an eagle, before following that up with birdie at the par-4 18th to get into the playoff. It was the sixth eagle of the week at the 17th, and second of the day.

► HOLE OF THE DAY: No. 18 — The 455-yard par 4 was pivotal on so many levels. Davis made birdie to get into a playoff (which he eventually won). Noren left his birdie putt short, missing out of the playoff by one stroke. Hank Lebioda missed birdie to miss the playoff. It's also where Joaquin Niemann had a birdie putt to win in regulation but missed, then made bogey to fall out of the playoff — after not making a bogey in 72 regulation holes. The 18th played the second-toughest of the week, at 4.135 strokes.

► STAT OF THE DAY: 26 — Years since there's been a PGA Tour playoff in the state of Michigan. The last one came at the 1995 Buick Open, when Woody Austin beat Mike Brisky on the second playoff hole. The PGA Tour has seen 13 playoff holes in the last two weeks, after Harris English went eight holes to beat Kramer Hickok to win the Travelers Championship in Connecticut.

► QUOTE OF THE DAY: "I was maybe too defensive on that one, you know, thinking too much about I really want this win instead of just giving it a good read and a good putt. Yeah, you learn." — Noren, on missing a 7-foot, 6-inch birdie putt on No. 18 that would've put him into a playoff. Above the hole on 18, it's almost impossible to leave it short, yet Noren, who was playing for his first PGA Tour victory, managed to do just that. He settled for a 64, and fourth-place paycheck.

► LOCALS WATCH: Ryan Brehm (Traverse City/Michigan State) — The Mt. Pleasant native finished 5 under and tied for 67th, but was 1 over on the weekend. At least he played the weekend, snapping a cut streak of seven PGA Tour tournaments (and eight tournaments total, counting a Korn Ferry stop). Tee to green, he was among the best in the field in Detroit, but putting was the big issue. Willie Mack III (Flint) — Playing his third PGA Tour event, Mack earned his first pay check, finishing 4 under and tied for 71st after a closing 71.

► AREA 3-1-3 UPDATE: Nobody completed the trifecta of an eagle on No. 14, ace on No. 15 and birdie on No. 16, but Scott Brown came closer than anybody has before — he made a hole-in-one at 15 on Friday and birdie on 16 on Sunday. He had a shot at eagle on 14 on Sunday, his green-side third shot settling 5 feet from the hole. Still, AREA 3-1-3 generated a $365,000 donation from Rocket Mortgage to the tournament's chief initiative, Changing the Course. That was $25,000 for the ace, and $5,000 for each of the six eagles at 14 and for the 63 birdies on No. 16.

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tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984