Bubba Watson hasnever met Tim Clark, the five-year Tour veteran from South Africa, yet here isClark walking up to Watson on the back end of the driving range at Torrey PinesGolf Course the Monday before the Buick Invitational. ¬∂ "Are you busy?"Clark asks. ¬∂ "No, I'm just talking," replies the cocksure 27-year-oldWatson, who admittedly enjoys running his mouth more than practicing. ¬∂"We'd like to get you on the launch monitor," says Clark. ¬∂"Perfect," says Watson. ¬∂ As he makes his way across the range, athrong of Tour players, caddies and equipment gurus assembles around themonitor like little boys lining up to see Barry Bonds take battingpractice.
"I'm morenervous now than when I'm in a tournament," says Watson, noting the crowdand taking a couple of practice swings with his pink-shafted, Ping G5 driverwith 6.7 degrees of loft. Like all of Watson's swings the practice cuts arelong, hard and fluid, and they rely on his exceptional hand-eye coordination.Soon, his 6'3", 180-pound body is warm and limber, and he pounds a few teeshots. The launch monitor registers the ball speed of the first two at 189 mph,while the third peaks at an even 190 mph. All three drives sail more than 350yards, landing near the feet of the golfers at the other end of the range.Later, when Tour official Mark Russell learns of Watson's exploits on thepractice tee, all he can do is shake his head and utter a line reminiscent ofChief Brody in Jaws: "They're going to need a bigger range."
Perhaps onlyMichelle Wie surpasses Watson in converting a potent driver and relativelylittle on-course success into a whirlwind of hype that's on the verge ofspinning out of control. The truth is, few people outside of Watson's FloridaPanhandle hometown of Bagdad (pop. 1,500) and fellow competitors on themini-tours had heard of him before his fourth-place finish at last month's SonyOpen in Hawaii, his third PGA Tour start. He was the driving-distance championon the Nationwide tour in 2005 with a 334-yard average, but, as he says,"no one cared then because it wasn't on the PGA Tour." Now, afterWatson overpowered the 7,060-yard Waialae Country Club in Honolulu with a336-yard driving average, the world has taken notice. "I tried to show offa little bit at the Sony," says Watson. "I knew the cameras were on me.I told my caddie [John Ritterbeck], 'No matter what happens, I'm going to letpeople know who I am.'"
He certainly did.With the outcome all but decided, ESPN locked onto Watson. Soon thereafter hebecame a media darling, with features about him appearing in dozens ofnewspapers across the country. The stories recounted how Bubba became Bubba:The son of Gerry and Molly Watson, Gerry Jr. got his nickname because Gerry Sr.thought the babe was fat and ugly. The rest of Watson's backstory serves toburnish his budding legend. As a child, Watson took to hitting plastic golfballs around the tree-lined acre surrounding his family's house. Teeing offfrom the dirt driveway, he'd circle the property playing cuts and draws as wellas hitting the ball high and low. By performing this exercise for five hours aday from the age of six until he was 12, Watson learned how to control theball. "I've never had a lesson because I learned how to play all the shotsin my yard," he says. "I don't know a thing about the golfswing."
Gerry, aconstruction worker who seldom broke 90, taught his son to keep the game simpleand focus on the flagstick. As for the finer points, "All Bubba had was meand some other guys beating and banging on the golf course," says Gerry.Today Watson is the rare Tour pro who requests only one number from his caddie:the distance to the pin.
Soon Watson movedto Tanglewood Golf and Country Club in nearby Milton, where he competed withfuture Tour players Heath Slocum and Boo Weekley, who are five years older."Heath and Boo were my role models," Watson says. He was a three-timeAmerican Junior Golf Association All-America while attending Milton High andthen put in two years at Faulkner State (Ala.) Community College and 21/2 moreat Georgia, where he majored in consumer economics. Still a few credits shy ofa degree, Watson turned pro in December 2001. That's when Gerry asked JoeDurant, a three-time PGA Tour winner and a family friend, to help Bubba withhis game. "I told Gerry that the last thing Bubba needed was somebodytrying to tell him how to play," says Durant. "He has a gift."
Nothing candiminish a young player's gift faster than struggling on the mini-tours.Watson, however, avoided that fate, flourishing on the Gulf Coast'sDevelopmental Player's tour. During his first few months as a pro he won$87,000 in 12 starts and was so confident--"I felt as if I was so muchbetter than everybody else," he says--that he bought a $50,000 Mercedes."People saw me showing up at tournaments in that car, and they saidsomething is not right," says Watson.
Even after heearned his Nationwide tour card at the 2002 Q school, Watson continued to playthe mini-tours. For the next three years he split time between the Nationwide,Tight Lies, Maverick and Hooters tours. "I wanted to play instead of goinghome when I didn't get into Nationwide events," says Watson. "With themoney I was making on the mini-tours, I didn't have to worry about paying mybills. When I got into a Nationwide event, I was freed up to go out andfreewheel it."
Watson'sbreakthrough on the Nationwide tour came at the '04 Lake Erie Charity Classicat Peek'n Peak Resort in Findley Lake, N.Y., where he lost in a playoff toKevin Stadler. "That tournament let me know that I could win at the toplevel," Watson says. His big break came last year, when he finished 21st onthe Nationwide money list. Only the top 20 qualify for the PGA Tour, but sinceJason Gore was given a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour by winning threetimes on the Nationwide and then earned a 2006 exemption for taking the bigTour's 84 Lumber Classic, Watson slipped into the last spot.
Last fall Watsonplayed in two events in Japan and three in Australia, making the cut in allfive. At the Australian Masters he lost in a playoff to Robert Allenby and awedthe fans with his bombs off the tee. "They didn't care if I shot 90 as longas I hit my driver a mile," says Watson.
The trip overseashelped Watson's confidence, but it didn't prepare him for becoming a Toursensation. Some of the credit for that goes to his wife of 18 months, theformer Angie Ball, whom he met at Georgia and who spent a season on the rosterof the WNBA's Charlotte Sting. "My being a professional athlete has helpedhim adjust to the lifestyle," says the 6'3" Angie. They live in a houseoff the 1st green at the Stonebrook Golf Club in Pace, Fla. (15 miles north ofPensacola), where Watson is a real homebody. "He'd probably rather playgolf with his friends at home [than play on Tour]," Angie says. Watsoncertainly doesn't conform to the image of a Tour player when it comes to workhabits. "Sometimes the only reason I hit balls is to feel as if I'm doingsomething," Watson says, amused, "and to make my caddie happy."
Last week at7,604-yard Torrey Pines South, the longest course on Tour at sea level, Watson,averaging 313.5 yards off the tee, finished 56th with a two-over 290. On theday before the opening round, no less than eventual winner Tiger Woods calledWatson and his style of play the future of golf, saying, "Guys are going tobe longer, bigger, more athletic.... It'll be truly remarkable to see how farthey can hit it." Watson is getting used to being compared with anotherlong-hitting Southerner, John Daly, and to fellow lefty Phil Mickelson, butBubba's not buying. "I want to be the next Bubba Watson," he says.
He has his ownvision of the future, and it is Bubbaesque. "My goal in life is to be onOprah and Letterman," he says. "Make sure you put that in the story.Maybe they'll see it."