Can Bubba hold the fort?

Bubba Watson will tee off for the first time as a reigning Masters Champion at this week’s Zurich Classic.

Bubba Watson will tee off for the first time as a reigning Masters Champion in this week’s Zurich Classic at TPC Louisiana in New Orleans.

He’ll also step onto the tee-box on Thursday as the defending champion, the PGA Tour’s longest hitter having led the field with an average 331.2 yards with his driver and co-lead in greens hit in regulation on his way to his victory in this event last year.

And this despite claiming that the course didn’t fit his eye.

Hitting the ball a long way helped him outlast Webb Simpson and win at TPC Louisiana, and with some 26 extra yards lengthening the course to 7,425 yards this year, it could further play into his hands, even though he might no longer be able to find the green with his driver at the dog-leg, par-four 13th hole which has been stretched from 377 yards to 403 yards.

Like a good many long hitters, Watson doesn’t always find the fairway, but as former World No 1 Greg Norman has pointed out, there is a lot of the late, great Seve Ballesteros in the American who, because of his “incredible ability to see shots few players can see” is able to get straight back on track after he has strayed into the rough and find the greens when he needs to.

It was this very ability that won him his first Green Jacket earlier this month – his now famous controlled hook out of the rough and around a clump of tall trees being the shot that earned him his play-off win over Louis Oosthuizen – and Norman hopes Watson will never change

Just as Ballesteros was able to do, self-taught Watson employs an unconventional style that breeds a false sense of security among his challengers.

“You couldn’t fall into the trap of thinking sometimes he was playing like a 10-handicapper, because at the end of the day, he would come out and kick your butt,” Norman will tell you.

“I love ‘Bubba’. He’s a breath of fresh air. I love the way he plays golf,” he says. “The guy has an incredible ability to see shots few players can.”

Norman, then will be hoping Watson remains the ‘Bubba’ he knows at this week’s Zurich Classic and that once more Watson is able to conjure up his recovery magic on an unforgiving Deep South layout that has been ranked among the 10 most difficult courses on the US PGA Tour on the last four occasions it has hosted the Zurich Classic and inside the top five for the last three times, the last of which Watson won.

Bunkering changes on the par-4 16th and par-5 18th might further benefit Watson, especially at the 18th which is now very much a risk and reward hole for players that go for the green in two.

That final hole might well produce one of the Zurich Classic’s most thrilling conclusions, regardless of who is in the running – and there are a good number of players in this week’s strong field beside Watson who could be up among the front runners on Sunday.

Northern Ireland’s Graeme McDowell is one of them.

Coming off a two week break, the 2010 US Open champion is looking as good as he has all year and if you think back to his strong finish at the Masters earlier this month where he shot a closing 68 for a 12th place tie, you might come to the conclusion that he is looking very capable of winning again.

Luke Donald, currently the World No 2 behind Rory McIlroy, and fellow Englishman Justin Rose are two more 2012 PGA Tour winners and European Ryder Cup contenders that can’t be written off this week.

Rose, who won the WGC-Cadillac Championship at the Blue Monster in early March and tied for 8th at the Masters in his last start, will be coming in to this week’s New Orleans battle with plenty of form and self belief and you might say the same thing about Donald, who won the Transitions Championship in the week after Rose’s WGC triumph and clearly likes TPC Louisiana course if his tie for 8th here last year means anything.

Some of the favoured Americans for the Zurich Classic title are the 2011 PGA Champion Keegan Bradley, Steve Stricker, who at World No 7 is currently the third highest ranked American behind Watson (4) and Hunter Mahan (5), young gun Cameron Tringale and Web Simpson

Bradley, whose disappointing tied-for-27th place at the Masters was his first finish outside of the top 25 in his last 10 starts, leads the PGA Tour’s all-round rankings statistic and is seventh in the scoring averages and may be the USA’s best bet behind Watson this week.

Of the mainland Europeans in the running, you would have to say that the Swedes, Peter Hanson and US-based Karl Pettersson, stand out as strongly as new Orleans contenders.

Pettersson in particular, is in the midst of a hot streak, having finished second in the Shell Houston Open at the end of March and having won the Heritage by all of five stroke at Harbour Town two weeks ago.

It’s never easy to get yourself on fire for three consecutive starts, though, and Hanson, who tied for third at the Masters with Lee Westwood, Phil Mickelson and Matt Kuchar and who shot the day’s lowest round of 65 in finishing 14th in the Volvo China Open only last week, may be the better option of the two this week.

But who can be sure of anything these days when the established stars of the early 21st Century – players like Tiger Woods, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh – are beginning to fade, and a whole bunch of younger men, Rory McIlroy, the current World No 1, Watson, McDowell, Bradley, Mahan, Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion and 2012 Masters runner-up, and Charl Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, are beginning to steal their thunder,