As Bubba Watson walked off a course carved from cypress swamp toward the TPC Louisiana clubhouse, his path was lined by autograph seekers who held out yellow pin flags bearing the emblem of a golfing shrine hundreds of miles away in the pine-covered hills of Georgia.
The buzz from Watson's Masters triumph at Augusta National has followed him to his first encore performance in New Orleans, where he'll begin the defense of his Zurich Classic victory in the tournament that opens Thursday.
He was already a crowd favorite in the Big Easy, having grown up a Saints fan three hours away in the Florida panhandle. He calls New Orleans' PGA Tour stop his "home tournament."
Now that he owns a green jacket, he's trying to learn how to handle the heightened demands on his time, a task made even more difficult by the fact that he's a new father.
"I'm pretty exhausted for this week," Watson conceded after his pro-am round Wednesday with a group that included New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu. "I've been playing pretty solid all year; my worst finish is 18th. So the advantage is I'm just playing good right now."
Watson said he didn't really need to get back on the tour so soon after winning his first major tournament on Easter weekend, at least as far as his golf career is concerned. Watson wasn't thinking about it like that, though. For him, his new status as Masters champion only raised the imperative to show up in a city he cares about and do what he can to help New Orleans maintain the momentum it has gained in its recovery from Hurricane Katrina.
"I thought it was the right thing to do," Watson said shortly before patiently signing dozens of the yellow Masters pin flags. "Some people were saying that, you know, I could take time off, spend time with family, but I just felt like it was the right thing to do for everybody involved with the tournament, the volunteers, everybody that's put the effort in for this week, the charities that are affected by this tournament.
"Just as defending champ, I felt like it was right for me to be here. Winning the Masters, I know it's going to be even harder. It's going to be different, tired, all those things, but all great things at the end."
In some ways, Watson's game is made for the par-72, 7,425-yard TPC Louisiana. The course favors long hitters.
"If I'm hitting the ball straight and in the fairway, then obviously length is a big factor," Watson said. "It's going to help out a lot. It makes the par 5s a little bit easier, makes the shorter holes that much better, makes the medium holes that much better."
On the par-4, 372-yard eighth hole during his pro-am round, the left-handed Watson ripped the fat pink head of his driver through the ball and sent a screaming liner bending slightly around a pair of cypress trees on the right side of the course. The ball bounded down the fairway to about 25 yards from the front of the green.
If he can keep making shots like that when it counts, he's bound to be in the hunt come Sunday.
Who else will there at the end is anyone's guess at this tournament, where six of the last 10 winners had never won a PGA Tour event before. They include K. J. Choi in 2002, Tim Petrovic in 2005, Nick Watney in 2007 and Andres Romero in 2008.
Last year, Webb Simpson nearly won his first PGA Tour title before falling to Watson in a playoff. Simpson might have won in regulation had he not demonstrated ultimate sportsmanship, notifying officials that his ball moved on the green while his putter was touching ground inches away. By rule that was a stroke penalty at the time — but not anymore. Seeing a moment like that potentially cost Simpson a title led to a rule change.
Simpson, who went on to register his first two PGA Tour wins since, is back this year, joining a solid field that also includes Keegan Bradley, Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell, Peter Hansen, Choi, Watney, David Toms, Rickie Fowler and Ben Crane.
There are 14 major winners in the field, including Angel Cabrera, Trevor Immelman, Ernie Els and Geoff Ogilvy.
Bradley won the last major of last year, the PGA Championship, and he came to New Orleans exuding confidence.
"I absolutely love coming here; I love the golf course," said Bradley, second at the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles in February. "My game is in a very good place. ... I'm starting to prove that I can play out here."