His game is unorthodox, he tries shots others would never consider, and he's sort of goofy, which makes Bubba (from Bagdad) Watson a wildly entertaining, world-class player
Smack dab in the middle of a long line of deeply tanned, deeply serious men: an oasis of mirth.
Golfers on the practice tee at last month's Accenture Match Play Championship in Marana, Ariz., looked up every so often to glance in the direction of Mark Wilson, who was cutting up with ... Jim Carrey?
Beg your pardon, that wasn't Carrey, but rather Bubba Watson reprising Carrey's manic turn as Chip Douglas in The Cable Guy. Wilson and Watson are friends who happened to draw each other in a second-round match that morning at The Ritz-Carlton Golf Club at Dove Mountain. You couldn't cut the tension with a knife. With their tee time 20 minutes away, they took turns paraphrasing Carrey's choice lines from the scene where he battles Matthew Broderick at the theme restaurant Medieval Times:
March 20, 2011
"I do not know you!"
"You are my sworn enemy!"
"Prepare to meet your demise!"
And so on.
Prepare to meet Bubba from Bagdad, as the sometimes-loopy lefty refers to himself. A native of Bagdad, Fla., near Pensacola, he is known for his ridiculous length—Watson's 314.8-yard driving average leads the PGA Tour—and the still more ridiculous pink shaft on his driver. What's the deal with that? "It's like calling the biggest man 'Tiny,'" Watson explains. "It doesn't really fit, but it's funny." Pause. "It's funny to me, with the goofy mind I have."
Watson's mind is among the most original and intriguing in golf. In this era of equipment designed to make the ball fly straight, he is an affable, shaggy-haired anomaly—a savant at shaping his shots: cutting and drawing (up to 50 yards), high and low, and otherwise making the ball do his bidding. With a self-taught swing you wouldn't teach, he executes shots that even his peers could not conceive.
"He paints the course," says Rory McIlroy. "He moves the ball better than anyone in the game right now."
"Most of us know our limitations," says Bill Haas. "I think Bubba feels like he doesn't have any."
In his third-round match at Dove Mountain against Geoff Ogilvy, Watson struck a tee shot on the par-5 11th that traveled 320 yards, leaving him 287 yards to the pin. "I was just in front of him and was thinking I'd have to hit a three-wood," recalls Ogilvy. "So when he pulled out his three-iron, I was a very interested spectator."
At 6'3", 180 pounds, Watson is rangy and flexible enough to extend his hands high over his head, generating ferocious clubhead speed on the downswing. Taking one of his trademark rips with that three-iron, he cut a low, boring shot that carried 240 yards despite never getting more than 25 feet off the ground. Bending inside a bunker, the ball bounced onto the green and rolled to within 10 feet. Ogilvy hit into a sand trap and eventually conceded the eagle. Watson closed him out three holes later.
"It wasn't a shot I could imagine anyone playing, until he played it," says Ogilvy, a two-time winner of the Match Play and the 2006 U.S. Open champion. "It wasn't in my scope of understanding. But that's what Bubba does."
Luke Donald won the event; Watson was knocked out in the semifinals by Martin Kaymer, who as a result of that victory ascended to No. 1 in the World Ranking. No less notable were the early-round flameouts of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, whose exits underscored the sense that there is a vacuum atop the sport. Is Watson a candidate to fill it? "I'm gainin' on it," he says. After going winless in 121 PGA Tour events (and 63 Nationwide starts before that), he has won twice in his last 20 outings. He is 17th in the World Ranking.
"The battle for Bubba has been learning to deal with the circus that comes with the PGA Tour," says Ted Scott, a former mini-tour player who has been Watson's caddie since his rookie year. Long known as one of the Tour's most talented players, Watson was not among its more mentally resilient.
"I let stuff get to me," he admits. "Situations or fans or weather or other people would get in my head." These days, he's more focused, better able to let the distractions—the crinkling of a bag of chips during his backswing; the marshal scratching himself in his line of sight—roll off his back.
Also, his putting has improved. And, while still a thrilling player to watch, he's ever so slightly more judicious about attempting what his friend and fellow pro D.A. Points calls "the big miraculous shot." It all added up to Watson's first PGA Tour win, in a two-hole playoff at the Travelers Championship in Cromwell, Conn., last June.
That victory, in his fifth year on Tour, unleashed a torrent of tears from Watson. "Coming from Bagdad, Florida," he said, "I never dreamed this."
Perhaps not. But he fantasized about it daily in his waking life.
Watson took up golf when he was six. He learned to "move" the ball by knocking a plastic ball around the family house on Old Bagdad Highway. Literally. Swinging a cut-down nine-iron, "I'd go around one way, say clockwise, drawing the ball, 'cause I'm lefthanded," he says. "Then I'd go the other way. This time, I'd have to cut it"—bend it right to left. No wonder the guy couldn't hit it straight if he tried.
The Watsons weren't poor, but Gerry and Molly definitely made sacrifices to keep their son in golf gear. "When I turned pro," Bubba says, "they were still making minimum payments on their credit cards from stuff they bought for me when I was in junior golf."
Their first big-ticket item? When Bubba was eight, they bought him clubs. A full set wasn't in the budget, so he got odd-numbered irons that year, evens the next.
Within a few years Ping chairman John A. Solheim was getting calls from Billy Weir, a company rep who lived in Milton, Fla., near Bagdad. A typical message:
"There's a kid down here who just won a tournament by 38 shots. I think we need to keep our eye on him."
Bubba befriended Weir (who died in January 2005), and every so often he accepted a club from him. But that was about all the help he got. Or needed. It is a point of pride with Watson that he has never taken a lesson, never had a swing coach.
The truth is, a lot of coaches wouldn't know where to begin with his deeply unorthodox swing, a violent, corkscrewing motion that "kind of proves," as Scott puts it, "that all the things we think you shouldn't do aren't necessarily things you shouldn't do."
Yes, Watson's setup is cockeyed, his feet aiming right, his shoulders left. True, his backswing goes way past parallel. To see where Watson strays farthest from the mainstream, however, watch his hips and feet.
"Most people would turn their hips 45 degrees" on their backswing, says Scott. "When Bubba's really gettin' after one, he turns his hips almost 90 degrees. His hip turn is where most guys' shoulder turn is."
All that torque makes it impossible for Watson to stay grounded. "He's swinging so hard," says Scott, "his feet are slipping and sliding and moving. He's almost walking around as he's hitting."
The No. 1 player at Milton High, Watson was a far better golfer than student. "School was very hard," he says. "I don't like to sit still for that long." (Although Watson has never been diagnosed, he and his wife, Angie, believe he has attention deficit disorder.) After two years at Faulkner State Community College in Alabama, Watson accepted a scholarship to Georgia.
Between games of pickup hoops at the university's Ramsey Center, he overheard a tall blonde talking about how much she enjoyed golf. Angie Ball stands 6'2" and played for the Lady Bulldogs as well as the WNBA's Charlotte Sting.
"Hey, if you want to play golf," he told her, "I'm a player here at Georgia. I can get us on the course."
Early in their courtship Watson suggested a game of Around the World, from beyond the three-point line. Angie made 10 consecutive shots, then asked her future husband, "Want to play again?"
After two seasons at Georgia, Watson left without graduating. (In 2008 he earned his degree in consumer economics.) He spent three seasons on the Nationwide tour before moving up to the Show in '06. In the third round of his first PGA Tour event, the Sony Open in Hawaii, he was paired with Mark Calcavecchia, another Ping player. That night Ping's director of tournament player relations, Chance Cozby, got a call from the older golfer.
"I played with Bubba Watson today," Cozby recalls Calcavecchia saying, "and I thought it was a joke." The rookie's profoundly unconventional game—his penchant for seeing, and executing, shots no one else could see—was distracting and unsettling to his elder, who at one point in the round pulled Watson aside and asked him, "What are you doing? Are you joking around?"
"Oh, no," replied Watson. "This is how I play golf."
Watson made more than $1 million as a rookie and led the Tour in driving distance in each of his first three seasons. From 2007 through '09 he earned another $4.6 million and a reputation as one of the game's most promising talents. He came close a handful of times, but never won. And there was this other, related problem. Bubba from Bagdad, the practical joker who delighted in posting trick shots on YouTube, had a dark side. Inside the ropes, he could be one of the most miserable SOBs on Tour.
Every mistake, every little miss, just ate at him," says Angie. "His peers knew how good he was, and he hadn't really lived up to his expectations, or anyone else's. He was really uptight and anxious."
Real life was intruding on his professional life. His father was dying. Diagnosed with throat cancer in the fall of 2009, Gerry died last October. After experiencing severe headaches, Angie was told by doctors that she might have a brain tumor. (It turned out she had a larger-than-average pituitary gland, not uncommon in tall women.) Those stresses turned the normally happy-go-lucky Watson into such a chronically cranky person that Scott came this close to firing him. After several tense weeks Scott gave his boss an ultimatum last June: Watson would change his attitude or find a new caddie.
"I thought for sure when I finished that conversation," says Scott, "that'd be the end of me."
Says Watson, recalling that ultimatum, "For a guy I consider my teammate, my good friend—for him to actually sit down and tell me that ... it meant a lot."
In their next tournament, the Travelers in Connecticut, Watson was six shots back at the start of the final round but took a one-stroke lead to the 17th hole, which he proceeded to double-bogey. Walking to the 18th tee, Scott got in his boss's ear. "It's just you and me out here," he said. "And when it's just you and me, you're going to make birdie on me all day long on the last hole. You still got this. We can get in a playoff."
Watson birdied 18, beat Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank in the playoff, then made an indelible impression on national TV, tearfully dedicating his first PGA Tour win to Molly and Gerry, whose weight had dipped to 115 pounds. He died four months later, but not before seeing his son win on the PGA Tour and play for his country in the Ryder Cup.
On the eve of that victory, to prepare for one of the most important rounds of golf in his life, Watson engaged Aaron Baddeley and Rickie Fowler in a fierce battle of laser tag. The enemy that Watson most fears, it seems, is boredom.
"Some weeks we'll go to a water park, some weeks we'll visit a submarine," says Andrew Fischer, who is Watson's trainer but also serves in an unofficial capacity as the fun coordinator, like Julie McCoy on The Love Boat. Other field trips he has arranged: bowling, miniature golf, video arcades and firing AK-47s with Navy SEALs.
While Watson, 32, may be "just a big kid," as Fowler says, it's not fair to describe him as a visored Peter Pan, determined to never grow up.
"He's grown up a lot over the last couple years," says Baddeley, Watson's closest friend on Tour. "Between his dad's illness, Angie's health scare and his growth as a Christian—that combination has given him a lot of perspective. When he hits a bad shot now he'll say, 'Hey, it's just a bogey.'"
Watson tapped into that newfound maturity at Torrey Pines in January, holding off another lefty, hometown favorite Mickelson, to win the Farmers Insurance Open by a stroke.
In addition to the $1,044,000 winner's check, Watson collected a surfboard, prompting a reporter to ask if he was regular-footed (right foot back, left foot forward), or goofy (left back, right forward). Acknowledging that he had never surfed before, Bubba said he didn't know. After a moment's reflection, he offered this: "Probably goofy."
Now on GOLF.com
See Bubba Watson unplugged on the practice range at GOLF.com/bubba
IS WATSON A CANDIDATE TO FILL THE VACUUM ATOP THE SPORT? "I'M GAININ' ON IT," HE SAYS.
WHEN CALC ASKED IF HE WAS JOKING AROUND, BUBBA REPLIED, "OH, NO. THIS IS HOW I PLAY GOLF."