Bubba Watson, probably a future Hall of Famer, admitted last season was the “lowest point of my life” in terms of his golfing career and that he had even contemplated retirement.
But invigorated by a victory at the Genesis Open just a month before, the 39-year-old lefty from Bagdad, Fla., came into last week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in search of more momentum, despite a lack of fondness for the format.
“Match play is not my favorite,” Watson said. “But I like it today.”
Apparently so does Central Texas.
Even though tickets were capped at fewer than 12,000 per day, large crowds showed up to watch Watson beat No. 2-ranked Justin Thomas in the semifinals and then cruise to a blistering 7-and-6 victory over 32nd-seeded Kevin Kisner, Watson’s 11th PGA Tour win and his second in five weeks.
Watson took care of business.
Now it’s the PGA Tour’s turn, in the form of extending its partnership with corporate sponsor Dell Technologies and the Austin Country Club membership beyond next year. One year remains in the four-year agreement between the parties, and it appears likely, pending approval from the 650-voting members of the club, that the tournament will remain here beyond 2019.
“We’d like to see it worked out,” said Dell Technologies CEO Michael Dell, standing near the 11th hole Sunday as he followed the final twosome of Watson and Kisner. “We’ll sit down with the club to talk about it.”
After Watson’s victory, such dignitaries as Austin mayor Steve Adler, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and Texas attorney general Ken Paxton posed with the latest champion.
“This is a great event,” Adler said. “It’s good for Austin, and it gives everybody in the world a chance to see Austin.”
The players rave about the course and the courtesy of the fans. Patrick Reed, who ousted favorite son Jordan Spieth on Friday, said the galleries were “very respectful” and never crossed the line.
“I thought it was a fantastic week,” said a beaming Jay Howard, Austin Country Club president. “The turnout was above our expectations. Our partners were happy. We learn something every year we put this on. We thought Year 3 was great, and I think Year 4 will be even better.”
So how about Year 5?
No one can say definitively, but negotiations to extend the deal beyond 2019 will begin “very soon,” Howard said.
One possible trouble spot involves some dissent within the ACC membership, which is not quite as united as it first was when 92 percent voted in favor of being host to the tournament for four years. Based on about a dozen interviews of ACC members, a similar proposal to extend the contract — probably for four more years — would likely be approved but by a much smaller percentage.
That raises the question of whether ACC would push forward with an extension if, say, 30 or 40 percent of its members vote against the idea. While that level of negativity isn’t likely, ACC is considering buying or leasing another club to provide golfing privileges for its members and ease the burden somewhat.
“My sense is the majority of the club supports it,” Howard said of the Dell tourney. “I think the talks will start pretty quickly.”
The PGA Tour would be wise to pay the club more than the $500,000 and $750,000 that ACC netted the first two years of deal and offer club members better perks such as two free tickets — right now, members can buy up to eight tickets apiece at a cost of up to $500 per ticket — and preferred viewing areas. The PGA Tour also ought to minimize the inconvenience tied to pre-tournament preparations.
At the root of members’ complaints is their inability to play the course for a month each year because it becomes the PGA Tour’s baby for the week of the tournament, the week preceding it and two weeks in the fall when the course is overseeded. Plus, construction and then removal of the temporary bleachers, hospitality suites and more begins in January and continues for about six weeks. Perhaps the Tour could shrink that timeline.
“We certainly don’t need the money, and we really don’t need the prestige,” said longtime club member Mike Allen, a former city champion and a three-time ACC club champion. “The inconvenience doesn’t bother the younger members as much. For some members, however, it’s just a pain in the neck. But there are a whole lot of positives. Would a vote be 92 percent positive again? No way, but I expect if you had another vote, we’d be approving it.”
There are even whispers the tournament could be moved to April or May because the PGA Championship is switching from August to May and THE PLAYER Championship will shift from May to March. Rest assured, though, the Dell will not be held in the oven that is Austin in August.
The average age of an ACC member has dropped to about 50 these days, but with the arrival of Dell Match Play, the older members who play the course more frequently grumble about their lack of access and the constant wetness of the course to better foster the grass’ growth. On the whole, though, more members appear to appreciate the aura and prestige that come with the event and aren’t opposed to rubbing elbows with the likes of Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.
Oh, and Bubba’s a fan, too.