Bubba Watson is the right Masters winner for these turbulent times. Augusta National may be a bastion of the 1%, but Watson is a down-home guy with a homemade golf swing whose dream car is the General Lee, the hot rod from The Dukes of Hazzard, which he recently bought at auction and has been tooling around in ever since. In the moments after Watson's unlikely victory at the 76th Masters, he thanked, in order, the Georgia Bulldogs (his alma mater), Jesus Christ ("my Lord and savior") and the host club's African-American locker room attendants, members of the 99% that make up Watson's core constituency. A native of the Florida panhandle town of Bagdad, ol' Bubba got himself in a pickle last summer when he played a tournament in Paris and couldn't quite summon the names of the famous monuments he had visited, alluding to "an arch" and a museum that "starts with an L." He's not exactly a student of golf history, either. Once asked about Tiger Woods's pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's various records, Watson said, "I'm not sure how many Masters Tiger has won. Actually, I'm not sure how many Jack has, either." He did add, helpfully, "I know it's a whole mess of 'em."
This is an article from the April 16, 2012 issue
Bubba's fans (450,000 and counting on Twitter at @bubbawatson) eat up this stuff. When he's not raising money for charity or acting like golf's Jackass—have you seen the video in which he hits a ball over his house into the hot tub?—he can be found showing off his prodigious chest hair by wearing nothing under his overalls in a goofy boy band spoof on YouTube called Golf Boys. (We watched it so you don't have to.) It's delicious that Watson kicked down the door at the Masters because no one takes themselves more seriously than the lords of Augusta. They imbue their club and tournament with an absurd solemnity, but Bubba knows that golf is supposed to be fun, and he plays with a childlike wonder. At 313.1 yards, he is the PGA Tour's longest hitter by almost six yards. He swings a driver with a macho pink head and shaft for cancer awareness, and for all four rounds at the Masters his attire was all-white, in support of children with disabilities.
Self-diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, Watson never hits the same shot twice. The PGA Tour abounds with tall tales of his massive cut shots around lakes and screaming draws over distant bunkers. "I don't like to go to the center of the greens," Watson says. "I want to hit the incredible shot. Who doesn't?"
Fittingly, he won this Masters out of the trees. On the second playoff hole against a game Louis Oosthuizen, the lefthanded Watson hooked his drive into a forest of pines off the fairway of Augusta National's 10th. Two holes running he had missed 18- and 12-foot putts that would have won the Masters, but Bubba never stopped strutting around as if he were Boss Hogg. Watson's motto has always been, "If I got a swing, I got a shot." He located a gap in the trees and off the pine straw and with a gap wedge he whipsawed what he called a "40-yard hook" to within 15 feet of the hole, a small miracle that thoroughly spooked Oosthuizen. Curving a shot such a distance is remarkable by any standard, especially with today's engineered golf balls; Bubba pulled off the 155-yard shot with a short iron off a dicey lie. Never mind the pressure. Oosthuizen, the runaway winner of the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews, failed to get up and down from in front of the green, and just like that, golf had its first genuine folk hero since John Daly emerged from the backwoods of Arkansas to win the PGA in 1991.
Watson's wife, Angie, is already predicting that Bubba will serve In-N-Out burgers at next year's champions' dinner.
Oosthuizen, who dueled with Watson for 20 holes, was still trying to digest what had befallen him: "That's really entertaining to play with him, to see the shots that he's taking on and shots that I don't really see or I would ever hit."
Watson, 33, may be a trick-shot artist, but he's not a fluke. He has gotten better every year on Tour—he has won four times in his last 39 starts, including twice in 2011, and, remarkably, has become one of the game's most consistent performers, finishing no worse than 18th in eight starts this year. He also has proved to be a regular threat in the majors, including a playoff loss at the 2010 PGA Championship. Now he's the top American in the World Ranking, at No. 4. The Masters seems uniquely suited for Bubba Ball. As Jim Furyk said on Sunday, "The most important thing at Augusta is creativity, and Bubba can do that as well as anyone. Phil Mickelson has a great short game, dominant length and great creativity, and it's worked out well for him here."
Like Forrest Gump, Watson can be accidentally profound. He was asked in the champion's press conference how good he can be. "That's the best part about history—we don't know what's going to happen," he said. "We don't know the future. We don't know anything." Actually, we do know this: Golf just got a whole lot livelier.
Bubba's heroics capped a Masters that was defined by the improbable. Woods roared into town two weeks removed from his first PGA Tour victory since before he ran over a fire hydrant in November 2009. He arrived with a remade swing that had propelled him to the top of the Tour's total driving stat, which takes into account length and accuracy. But his preparation for the Masters had been complicated by the publication of a tell-all by his former swing coach Hank Haney, who wrote candidly of Tiger's fear of hitting the driver. Sure enough, Woods began his Masters with a snap-hook that settled on the edge of the 9th fairway. It was the big miss, and then he did it again on the next tee, two frightful swings that haunted him for the rest of the tournament. During a second-round 75, he plainly had no idea where the ball was going, and Woods sullied the Cathedral in the Pines by kicking a discarded nine-iron and swearing oaths audible to a national TV audience. ("Goddam!" was a particularly inspired choice on Good Friday.) Woods would finish 40th, his worst Masters showing as a pro, but he wasn't the week's only dud. Rory McIlroy had spent the preceding 12 months insisting he was not scarred by throwing away a four-stroke lead during last year's final round. That was easy to believe after he opened 71--69 to get within a stroke of the lead held by Fred Couples and Jason Dufner. But on Saturday, golf's boy wonder again seemed overwhelmed, shooting a front-nine 42 to blow himself out of the tournament. McIlroy is only 22, and it's comforting to think he'll have other opportunities, but you can lose the Masters only so many times before the hurt metastasizes. Ask Tom Weiskopf. Or Johnny Miller. Or Greg Norman. Or Ernie Els. All were once phenoms being fitted for green jackets, but they never got it done.
McIlroy's demise created a vacuum of star power on the third-round leader board until Mickelson blitzed the back nine in 30, which his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, called the second best nine holes Mickelson has played, behind the iconic Sunday back-nine 31 at the 2004 Masters, when he won his first green jacket. Mickelson's 66 left him a stroke behind surprise leader Peter Hanson of Sweden, but that was considered a mere inconvenience; Sunday was to be a coronation as Mickelson would tie his idol, Arnold Palmer, with four Masters wins and supplant Woods as the king of Augusta. (Tiger has four green jackets too, but none since 2005.) The only words of caution came from Steve Loy, Mickelson's agent and onetime college coach. "I get nervous when they start handing out trophies when there's still 18 holes to go," Loy said.
In fact, it took Phil only one swing to dig a hole from which he would not recover. With a front-left pin placement on the tough par-3 4th, Mickelson's preferred miss was long and a bit left, but he overdid it—his ball clanged off a railing in the bleachers into a bamboo thicket on the edge of the property. It was the most unlucky carom since Jean van de Velde doinked a grandstand during his famous meltdown at the 1999 British Open, and it left Mickelson no place to take a drop for an unplayable lie. Phil the Thrill does everything but golf righthanded and has a long history of switch-hitting when unable to take his normal stance. "He won the Sun Devil Classic for us hitting righthanded from under an oleander bush to an island green," Loy says. This time it took Lefty two jabs from the wrong side of the ball to escape the thicket, leading to a homely triple bogey. He would never again get closer to the lead than two strokes.
Mickelson's misadventure was only the second-most-dramatic moment in the early going of the final round, as on the par-5 2nd hole Oosthuizen stirred the ghost of Gene Sarazen by holing his second shot for an albatross that vaulted him to 10 under and a two-stroke lead. With apologies to McIlroy, Oosthuizen may have the sweetest swing in the game. "Unfortunately, he doesn't have Rory's desire," says Oosthuizen's swing coach, Pete Cowen. "If Louis wanted it a little more, he could easily be the best player in the game."
Watson has the opposite problem—he cares too much, and the big question for this high-strung, jumpy competitor was whether he could calm his nerves on Masters Sunday. A three-putt on the 1st hole wasn't promising, especially since Watson had declared following his second round, "I am not a very good putter." Five strokes off the lead after his playing partner's double eagle, Watson rallied to birdie the 2nd and 5th holes. His charge to victory began at number 13, where he hit a nine-iron (!) into the par-5 and made birdie. He made another at 14 thanks to a gorgeous approach, cutting his deficit to a stroke, and Watson matched Oosthuizen's birdie at 15 when he reached the par-5 with seven-iron, what counts as a long iron for him. He finally pulled even with a pressure-proof eight-footer on 16, his fourth straight birdie in a finishing kick that evoked Charl Schwartzel's flourish of last year.
When Watson finally dispatched Oosthuizen in the playoff, he started to break down even before he pulled his ball out of the hole. Then he dissolved into tears in the arms of his mom, Molly. Turns out that for all his swagger, Watson has a soft heart. On Easter Sunday he got misty at any mention of his newly adopted son, Caleb, or his late father, Gerry, a Green Beret who was forever admonishing his son to swing harder at the Wiffle balls he batted around in the family's backyard. "My dad taught me everything I know," Watson says. "It's not very much, but that's all I know."
A willingness to laugh at his own goofiness is what makes Watson so endearing. When he came out on Tour he was so hard on himself, he scared people away with his brooding. As he has learned to minimize the negativity—he credits his wife's steadying influence and being born again in 2004 with altering his perspective—Watson has made deep friendships, which explains why Aaron Baddeley, Ben Crane and Rickie Fowler followed the playoff on foot. (Like Watson, all are regulars at the Tour's Bible-study sessions.) Noticeably absent was Angie, who is usually a towering presence in Bubba's gallery. A onetime WNBA player, she stands an inch taller than her 6'3" hubby. Angie had stayed in Florida to tend to Caleb, who is only six weeks old. Still, there was a definite family vibe when the Watson entourage gathered in Butler Cabin on Sunday night. Baddeley's two daughters were scampering around the cabin, which is decorated in a style best described as Southern masculine. "They call him Uncle Bubba," Baddeley said. "He'll be a great dad because he's just a big kid himself."
There was a bartender in the corner, but everybody was drinking soda—like Bubba, his friends and family are teetotalers. The general feeling in the room was dazed disbelief. Watson's caddie, Ted Scott, said to no one in particular, "I can't believe he gets to come back here for the next 40 years."
A club employee walked through the cabin with a green jacket on a hanger. Fowler looked at it longingly. "Please?" he asked. It wasn't for him. The jacket was a 43 long to replace the bigger one Watson had originally slipped on. "I'm more than happy with either one," Watson said. He was then led to the traditional champion's dinner with the Augusta National membership, a collection of the richest and most powerful men in the country. These are not exactly Bubba's people, but his seat at the table came the old-fashioned way: He earned it.