Sidelined for the last eight months after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, Bubba Watson finally had the opportunity to play some competitive golf this week. Afterward, he was feeling pretty chipper about the outcome.

“I just beat my caddie and my wife,” he said with a grin. “So I got that going for me.”

Consider it an unofficial tune-up for his re-entry into tournament action, as the two-time Masters champ will make his long-awaited return at next week’s Asian Tour season opener, the PIF Saudi International powered by Softbank Investment Advisers.

He’ll follow that in late February at LIV Golf Mayakoba in Mexico, his first competitive start for his new league since joining LIV Golf in the middle of last year’s inaugural season.

Watson, you may recall, spent the final five events of 2022 as the non-playing captain for Team Niblicks, as well as an on-course reporter for the live-streaming broadcast. But his primary goal during that time was to focus on his rehab after surgery following his last playing appearance at the PGA Championship in May.

It was during the middle of the third round at Southern Hills that Watson knew he had a serious health issue. He had shot a 7-under 63 the day before – the lowest score of his 184 career rounds played in majors – to climb into contention. As he headed toward the 10th tee, he was just one shot off the lead. There was just one problem.

“I can’t walk,” he told his caddie, Gabe Sauer.

“What do you mean?” replied Sauer.

“I don’t know, man. I just can’t walk,” Watson replied.

Sauder pointed to the nearby clubhouse, a short distance away if Watson wanted to withdraw. “You don’t need to injure yourself,” he cautioned.

Replied Watson: “I’m already injured.”

So close to the lead, he was determined to keep going, perhaps pull off a couple of miracle shots to stay in the mix. Alas, he went 4-over on the back nine that day to finish with a 73, followed by a 75 in the final round to drop into a tie for 30th. Having entered the weekend with hopes of a third major victory, he left Southern Hills in pain and saddled with uncertainty.

“My leg, I just couldn’t turn on it,” the left-handed Watson recalled. “I couldn’t twist on it.”

Initially, he thought he’d miss just 4-6 weeks, but further examinations revealed more serious issues, with the meniscus detached on the bone on one side and ripped on the other. In early June, he underwent surgery, and then watched during the next six weeks as the muscles in his right leg began to atrophy due to inactivity.

“I didn’t know I had muscle, first of all,” Watson said, smirking. “But I just lost so much muscle, and it wasn’t so much the quad or the calf, it was everything. The hip, the hip mobility, all of that stuff. I had to learn to walk again.”

Just as he was starting the rehab process, it was announced in late July that Watson was joining LIV Golf. He knew playing the rest of the season was a no-go, but he took comfort in realizing the extended off-season would allow him ample time to return for the 2023 launch of the 14-event LIV Golf League.

In between his responsibilities as a team captain and his broadcasting role, he began to slowly work on his game at LIV events. On the range at The International in Boston, he began hitting wedges. At the next tournament at Rich Harvest Farms outside Chicago, he hit 9-irons. In Bangkok, it was 7-irons. Finally, at the Miami Team Championship in late October, he received the go-ahead to hit drivers, although he was limited to a half-dozen swings.

A month later, doctors gave him the good news: He was 100 per cent ready for full, normal practice sessions with no limitations on swing counts. However, that didn’t mean his game immediately returned to full strength. The physical side was one thing; the mental side might be the bigger challenge.

“I’m still trying to build that leg muscle up,” Watson said. “I wouldn’t say I’m 100 per cent on the leg muscle being equal (to his left leg). But I’m really close. I’ll say we’re 10, 15 per cent off one leg to the other. I’m walking fine, no pain. It’s now trusting that I can really finish on that (right) leg.

“There’s going to be a few swings here and there where you just kind of revert back to old thoughts. So it’s like anything. It’s almost like teaching yourself to swing again or hit again … Now it’s all on me.”

Even the aspects of the game that don’t require big swings, like chipping and putting, have been slow to return, with his work on those areas compromised by rough winter weather in his home of Pensacola, Florida.

“It’s been real damp, the grass hasn’t grown well,” Watson said. “I know I need to get into quality golf courses. And then obviously you can’t recreate the energy, the excitement, the pressure (of tournament golf). It’s easy here now. Hopefully when game time comes, there’s not too much rust. Hopefully I can get into the flow quick.”

If it’s anything like his broadcast work during last year’s LIV events, it shouldn’t take too long for Watson. From his initial on-air appearance, he received favourable reviews for his insight and enthusiasm; meanwhile, he gained an appreciation for what it takes to pull off non-stop coverage in a 5-hour window.

His last call of the season, a birdie putt by Patrick Reed that helped 4 Aces secure the Team Championship title, reminded Watson of what he was missing, and why he’d rather have a driver in his hand than a microphone.

“Knowing Patrick over these years and being able to see his excitement for that, it made me want to do it. Made me want to go home and grind so I can have that chance to pull of something like that for my team,” Watson said. “This is why we joined LIV, for the team aspect. I’m anxious to get back with the team and try to pull off amazing shots.”

It was a year ago that Watson was victimized by an amazing shot – Harold Varner III’s 92-foot eagle putt on the 72nd hole to break a tie at the PIF Saudi International, leaving Watson in solo second. Now the good friends will enter 2023 playing for the same team, sharing the same goals of reaching the podium and celebrating.

And while Watson will miss working with the LIV Golf broadcast team, he won’t exactly miss being in front of a camera.

“I’d rather miss a 3-footer,” he said, “than have to come up with words to talk about golf.”