By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) – Bubba Watson withstood an inspired early challenge from playing partner Jordan Spieth to clinch the Masters for a second time in three years with a three-shot victory at Augusta National on Sunday.
Trailing the prodigiously talented Spieth by two strokes after seven holes, the left-handed Watson took advantage of a faltering run by his fellow American around the turn as he upped his own game, then maintained control on the back nine.
Fan favorite Watson, who landed his first major title with a thrilling playoff win over South African Louis Oosthuizen in 2012, mixed five birdies with two bogeys to card a three-under-par 69 on a warm but mainly overcast afternoon.
The 35-year-old from Florida, known for his distance off the tee, his pink-shafted driver with a pink head and his often audacious shot-making, covered the back nine in even par to post an eight-under total of 280.
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After being warmly embraced by his caddie, Watson shook hands with Spieth before he was then congratulated greenside by his wife Angie and their two-year-old boy Caleb.
“This one is a lot different,” a teary-eyed Watson, who had produced surprisingly disciplined golf for most of the week, said before being helped into the coveted green jacket by last year’s Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia.
“The first one for me (his 2012 Masters win), it’s almost like I lucked into it. This one was a lot of hard work and dedication.
“After giving away that jacket last year, I wanted it back. I told Adam we could just swap it back and forth every year. I never loved green so much,” added the American, who became the 17th player to win the Masters more than once.
Spieth, at 20 aiming to eclipse Tiger Woods by becoming the youngest player to win the Masters, had to settle for a share of second place at five under after signing off with a 72, finishing level with Swede Jonas Blixt (71).
“That was fun, but at the same time, it hurts right now,” Spieth said. “I wanted to get in contention on the back nine Sunday, but didn’t come out on top.
“Although it sits a little hard right now, I’ll be back and I can’t wait to be back. It was an incredible experience. It was so much fun, it really was. Even if I didn’t show it there on the back nine, it was.
“I took it all in, standing ovations for both of us to each green. It was a dream come true. Hats off obviously to Bubba, because when he’s driving the ball well out here, he’s very tough to beat.”
Pony-tailed Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, at the ripe age of 50 and aiming to surpass Jack Nicklaus by becoming the oldest Masters winner, placed fourth after also carding a 71.
American world number seven Matt Kuchar, seeking his first major victory, briefly held a share of the lead after three holes but then struggled on a layout running fast and firm on the way to a 74 and a tie for fifth with Rickie Fowler (73).
German veteran Bernhard Langer, a double Masters champion, rolled back the years with a closing 69 to finish at even par, level with five others including Rory McIlroy (69) and American Jimmy Walker (70).
The remarkably composed Spieth had been the dominant figure in the early going on Sunday with some riveting golf, four birdies and a bogey in the first seven holes putting him two ahead of the chasing pack.
He picked up his first shot at the par-five second, sinking a left-to-right breaking putt from 10 feet, then spectacularly holed out from a bunker to birdie the par-three fourth, raising both arms in celebration.
Though he bogeyed the fifth after hitting his approach into a greenside bunker, he recovered with birdies at the par-three sixth, hitting his tee shot to three feet, and at the seventh, where he coaxed in a slick 12-footer downhill.
Watson, who had offset a bogey at the third with a birdie at the fourth, gathered further momentum with another birdie at the sixth where his tee shot ended up nine feet from the cup and he coolly sank the putt.
He then benefited from two-shot swings at the eighth and ninth. While Watson got up and down from left of the green to birdie the par-five eighth, Spieth ran up a three-putt bogey to drop back into a tie for the lead at seven under.
Spieth also bogeyed the difficult ninth after his approach rolled off the front of the elevated green and he failed to get up and down from there, missing a par putt from five feet.
Watson hit his second shot there to 15 feet and, with ice-cool nerve, rolled in the birdie putt which broke from right-to-left, triggering loud roars which echoed through the Georgian pines.
Though Watson stumbled with a bogey at the tricky 10th, he regained a two-stroke cushion when Spieth fell victim to the swirling winds around Amen Corner with a bogey at the par-three 12th after his tee shot ended up in the water of Rae’s Creek.
The long-hitting Watson increased his lead to three shots at the par-five 13th after a massive drive set up a comfortable two-putt birdie before he comfortably parred the last five holes to secure victory.
Scott’s title defense began well enough with opening rounds of 69 and 72 but he lost momentum over the weekend with scores of 76 and 72, dropping back into a tie for 14th at one over, level with U.S. Open champion Justin Rose (74).
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Gene Cherry)