After carding a double bogey on the par-3 11th hole Sunday at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club, Bubba Watson figured if he went 1 under over his final seven holes that he would at least earn himself a top-5 finish.
He nearly won.
Watson went 3 under during that closing stretch, notching birdie at the par-4 penultimate hole and a final-hole eagle from 15 feet, to take the clubhouse lead at 12 under, which, at the time, was two shots better than Varner, who was playing the 17th hole. Seemingly primed for a playoff, Watson then looked on as Varner went birdie-eagle to clip him by a shot.
“I knew that if I could make an eagle, I could scare him, right? Not knowing what he was doing or they were doing behind me,” Watson said. “So, I made the eagle, and I looked up and saw I had a two-shot lead. Then I thought I had a great chance, but obviously he pulled out a shot better than me to win.
“It was a crazy back nine and a fun back nine.”
Full-field scores from PIF Saudi International
Though the 43-year-old Watson came up short, it was also his best finish since he won the 2018 Travelers. Watson, who entered the week at No. 105 in the world rankings, hadn’t recorded a top-5 finish since the 2020 Zozo, where he shared fourth.
“This is good,” Watson said. “My rest and my mental state, it just shows that I can still play. Even though I’m getting older, I can still play with these boys.”
He was also thrilled for Varner, who he hung out with a lot off the course this week. When he heard the noise from Varner’s eagle make, Watson went sprinting back toward the green to congratulate his friend.
“This is a guy that’s just starting to play better and better each year,” Watson said. “We see his name a little bit more. He’s getting comfortable. … Having a guy close in America, just hasn’t done it, and then to do it here – I mean, this is the best field in the world right now. This is the highest points in the world. So, for him to do that, for me to pull out the shots that I pulled out under pressure and then for him to do it, yeah, this is what you want. This is what golf’s all about.
“I’m not mad at him for beating me. I’m happy for him. He’s a dear friend of mine, and I applaud him. I love seeing that. I cheer for him.”
Responded Varner: “If I could beat somebody that I look up to, how cool is that? And the way it happened, hate it for him. He’s won plenty (laughter). … We see life pretty similar, and we just hang out. This week we’ve hung out a lot. But we also know how to give each other slack. That’s the kind of friendships that I have. I’m not really good at just always being your friend. I want to talk smack. I want to be in your face, and I want you to do the same to me, and he’s really good at that.”