The more Bubba Watson wins—especially at the Augusta National Golf Club—the more his quirky personality plays out in the public light.
It’s not that he’s much different than in the past. Friends and fellow players who go back with Watson to the Web.com Tour, mini-tours or the University of Georgia will tell you that he’s always been emotional, prone to mood swings. They also will tell you he’s a good-hearted country boy from Bagdad, Fla., a devout Christian, playful as a kid but someone who openly wonders, “What’s all the fuss?”
“I’m Bubba from Bagdad,” he’s fond of saying. And after his second Masters title last year, he blurted out: “Why me? Why Bubba Watson from Bagdad,” he said. “Why is he winning?”
But he is, and two Masters victories, a World Golf Championship and three other PGA Tour titles, plus being the longest hitter on the globe with his pink-shafted driver, have brought Watson more attention than he ever thought he’d get when he was toiling on mini-tours a decade ago.
And with the success he’s enjoyed, especially in the past three years, Watson’s notoriety has grown at an exponential rate with every Sunday winner’s ceremony. That’s been both good and bad.
Watson Enjoys the 18th Hole Walk
Watson’s three-shot victory over Jordan Spieth and Jonas Blixt in the 2014 Masters was a far different script than his 2012 playoff triumph over Louis Oosthuizen, thanks to an improbable pitching wedge out of the trees on the right of the 10th fairway, a shot at Augusta, under pressure, exceeded only by Gene Sarazen’s 4-wood for a 2 at the par-5 13th in 1935.
Watson had to birdie four holes in a row in the 2012 final round just to reach the playoff. Last year, he pulled away with birdies at Nos. 6, 8 and 9 and was able to soak in the walk to the green at the 18th hole amid the adulation of the patrons.
…We have seen an inner battle of between good Bubba and…bad Bubba.
He shot 69 in the final round, the only score in the 60s from a player with even a remote chance at winning on Sunday. “It was a lot easier coming down the last few holes, especially
the last hole, knowing I had a couple of shots to play with,” Watson said.
Watson went on to enjoy his best overall season on the PGA Tour, finishing fifth on the FedEx Cup points list, second in earnings ($6.3 million) and seventh in scoring. He set a personal best with eight top-10 finishes and missed only three cuts.
Watson also did more than win his second Masters. With his length off the tee and his mind for approach shots and short-game skills, he has established himself as a threat at Augusta National for a long time to come.
At 36 years old entering the 2015 Masters, could he ever match Tiger Woods and Arnold Palmer for four green jackets or even Jack Nicklaus for six? No one knows the answer to that, including Watson. But what a second victory at Augusta National did for him was prove the first wasn’t a fluke.
Introvert or Extrovert?
The game has also brought him fame—and headaches, many of his own doing. The public has gotten to know more about Watson in the Internet and Golf Channel era. The media wants a bigger chunk of his time. And his reactions, both negative and positive, have been a hot topic of debate. In the process, we’ve seen an inner battle between Good Bubba and Bad Bubba. To his credit, he can joke about it. When asked whether Watson would ever employ a sports psychologist, he replied, “I’m nuts. They’d quit.”
At times he seems to relish the spotlight and even goes over the edge into “Hey, everybody, watch me!” territory. He’s made three YouTube videos, two with fellow players Hunter Mahan, Rickie Fowler and Ben Crane, bought the original General Lee car that was used on the TV show The Dukes of Hazzard and drove it into the parking lot at the TPC Scottsdale. He’s also helped design a hovercraft that can be used as a golf cart and made another YouTube video to promote it.
Other times, Watson has tried to shoot out the spotlight with a Titleist. Karen Crouse of the New York Timesonce wrote that he was “an introvert trapped in an entertainer’s body.”
He’s made three YouTube videos…bought the original General Lee…helped design a hovercraft…
Getting a one-on-one interview with Watson is difficult. His inner circle keeps most of the media at bay and Watson has tended to only do pre-tournament interviews in “the big rooms” or after his rounds. But he hardly ever turns down a request from Golf Channel, where he can play his aw-shucks Bubba Golf routine to the hilt.
Like Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, Watson doesn’t have the time to sign every autograph and tries to weed out the adults he believes are memorabilia dealers and signs mostly for kids. Regardless, when Watson doesn’t stop to sign autographs, or signs every fourth or fifth item extended from behind a rope line, he opens himself up for criticism. He once got into a shouting match with an adult fan at the Memorial in Columbus, Ohio, when the fan was upset Watson wouldn’t sign for him. Watson accused the fan of only wanting the autograph to sell.
A few weeks after his victory at Riviera last year, he made 11 at the par-5 sixth hole at Bay Hill during the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Watson signed for an 85 and withdrew, citing allergies. That might have been the end of the issue had not Fowler tweeted video of the two of them cavorting later in the day on a lakeside dock behind Watson’s Isleworth home just a short drive from Bay Hill.
The media wants a bigger chunk of his time. And his reaction, both good and bad, has been a hot topic of debate.
Then there are Watson’s ongoing public dust-ups during competition with caddie Ted Scott. Fans have been aghast with some of the things they’ve heard Watson tell Scott, the only Tour caddie he’s ever used, ranging from criticizing how Scott reads the greens to his club selection. Scott always laughs it off and defends his boss to the hilt.
Watson “Slaps” PGA
One other incident marred Watson’s season. At the PGA Championship, held at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., the organization decided to have a long-drive contest at the 10th hole. Players actually wouldn’t have to do anything. Officials simply measured their tee shots in practice rounds (the par-5, 590-yarder was going to be a driver hole for everyone) and kept the gallery up to date with the results. For whatever reason, Watson balked. “I’m here to win a championship,” he said. “I’m not here to goof around.”
Said the guy who dressed in overall jeans and no shoes for his Golf Boys videos.
…Watson remains beloved among American golf fans.
Watson petulantly pulled a 3-iron at the 10th hole on the day of the contest, whacked it down the fairway and took off walking before playing partner Chesson Hadley could even put his tee in the ground. “I don’t think we should have a competition like that while we are trying to learn the golf course,” Watson said later, despite the fact that he would not, and did not, hit 3-iron off that tee in competition.
Watson was the only player to purposely avoid participating. Reaction was immediate and highly critical, as it was clear everyone had had it up to their Izod collars with Watson.
“The guy who wanted to drive the General Lee down Magnolia Lane thinks a long-drive contest is ridiculous,” tweeted Kyle Porter of CBS.
“It was a slap in the face,” former player Arron Oberholser said on Golf Channel. “It was disrespectful to the event and to the PGA and I don’t think it does Bubba Watson any good to do that kind of stuff.”
Watson also created controversy in Europe—again. During the Scottish Open last summer, he snapped at fans and complained about gallery control. Then during the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool, he was roundly ripped by the British media for his lack of interest in musical history when he couldn’t name a single member of the Beatles.
Sound too picky? Apparently not in Liverpool, the home town of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
I’m a golfer not a history major.
After missing the cut at the Open, Watson made the preposterous claim that commentators on televised golf tournaments never say “one positive thing” about him on the air and then took that a step further to include the print media. “I’m waiting on that one,” he said about what he believes to be positive press after shooting 72 on Friday to miss the cut at 4-over. “Then I’ll start reading.”
It was his second controversial trip to Europe. In the 2011 French Open, he turned the week into a debacle on and off the course. He missed the cut, complained about fans taking too many photos during competition (allowed on the European PGA Tour) and openly said he was homesick. When asked if he had visited any landmarks in Paris, Watson said, “I don’t know the names of all the things…the big tower, Eiffel Tower, an arch…whatever…I rode around in a circle. And then, what’s that…it starts with an ‘L.’”
Uh, it was the Louvre, Bubba.
Watson acted shocked later when informed at the Open Championship that French golf fans took offense to both his criticism of their decorum and his lack of interest in the Paris tourist attractions. His reply: “I’m a golfer, not a history major.”
Good Deeds Out-weigh the Flaws
But Watson remains beloved among American golf fans, who see him as an everyman like John Daly, but without the baggage of alcohol, womanizing, club-throwing or tanking. Galleries seem to accept Watson, flaws and all, perhaps mindful that nothing he’s done has landed him in a holding cell or rehab. And despite some of his mindless stunts and ill-timed comments, Watson proves time and again that he can be as class an act as there is on the PGA Tour—if he wants to.
…There is more good about Bubba than bad.
>> Exhibit A: After winning the Masters last year, Watson’s celebration was to visit a Washington Road Waffle House for his favorite meal—a grilled-cheese sandwich and the restaurant’s famed hashbrown potatoes. Since he had just won his second green jacket, he probably splurged and went with scattered, smothered, covered, diced and chunked.
>> Exhibit B: When Watson was playing on the Hooters Tour, he still managed to find $2,000 to give to a friend to start a women’s golf tournament at
the University of West Florida. He continues to support the tournament.
>> Exhibits C through Z: Watson supports causes related to cancer research, especially since his beloved father, Gerry, died of the disease in 2010. Since his father was a Green Beret, he’s enthusiastic in his support of military-related charities such as Birdies for the Brave.
Watson has donated to a children’s hospital in Phoenix, conducted a clinic to raise money for ill or handicapped kids to go to summer camp in North Carolina, made a contribution to earthquake relief in Japan and supported adoption services such as the Miami-based Chicks in Crisis, where he and his wife Angie adopted their son Caleb. They also are adopting a daughter, Dakota, with the final arrangements pending as of press time.
Introspection and Victory in China
It was ironic that Watson had one of his finest weeks, both on the course and off, in Shanghai, China, this past November. Not only did he show the proper appreciation for being in another country and talk openly about how he’s trying to improve as a person, but he won the HSBC Champions, his first World Golf Championship, in dramatic fashion.
Before the tournament Watson agreed to a news conference. He started out by praising the course, the tournament and the city of Shanghai. He even participated in a “lantern dance.”
“To see other cultures and be a part of other cultures, it’s a pretty fun experience,” he said.
Watson then pretty much told the media that its criticism of him was spot-on and he was using it as a learning experience. “Any time somebody writes bad press, the only way I’m going to improve as a human being, improve as a husband, improve as a dad, is when people call you out,” he said.
Watson supports causes related to cancer research…his beloved father, Gerry, died of the disease in 2010.Since his father is a Green Beret, He’senthusiastic in his support of military-related charities…
Four days later, Watson holed a 60-foot bunker shot at the 18th hole of the Sheshan International Golf Club to get into a playoff, then beat Tim Clark with a 20-foot birdie putt at the same hole.
After the round, one of his first thoughts might show that he’s finally getting it. “It was great for me to win outside the U.S.,” he said. “I’ve always dreamed of winning at least one outside the U.S.”
Later, Watson summed up his year. “It’s all about learning,” he said. “It’s all about learning the process. I think the big learning curve I had was the PGA Championship when the media and Twitter…called me out on my issues. Hopefully, I resolved them.”
So does anyone who recognizes there is more good about Bubba than bad.
This article appears in the Masters 2015 issue of Augusta Magazine.