Bubba Watson’s willingness to defy convention was apparent in his youth.
Had Gerry Watson, the late father of the double Masters champion, had his way, there would have been sporting development of an altogether different sort for the man who went on to become one of the best golfers in the world.
“Dad’s favourite team was the Yankees,” says Watson, taking up the storyas he prepared for the first major of the year at Augusta this week. “It wasn’t anything bad about golf as a sport. He just had a dream that I would play baseball – and I played it; I was good at it. At high school my dad said I had to choose; baseball or golf. I chose golf. He was a little upset at first but he got used to the idea – and it worked out.
“My dad played weekend golf. When I turned six my mom said: ‘Hey, if you are going to go, you have to go with your son and spend time with your son.’ Dad said: ‘I don’t want him to be a golfer. I want him to play baseball.’ My dad lost that one and I had to go.
“The head pro happened to be left‑handed and noticed I was left-handed, so he gave me a nine iron, which my dad cut down. For the first year I had that one club. I just kept hitting balls and, for me, at that age, it was just about family; spending time with my dad.
“At eight I got my first set of clubs. My parents noticed I had an interest in it but they didn’t push me, they just made sure that I went and played. I got better and better. Mom never played but she would caddie for me. Dad played, my sister played, so it was a family thing. Golf was all about family.”
That remains the case. Ask Watson about his professional legacy and he shrugs. “I would far rather be known for the person I am, not the golfer,” he says. “A great husband, father and friend.”
Nonetheless Watson’s career is worthy of lavish praise. In this era of condensed talent at the summit of the game he is the No4 ranked player. He has secured seven “other” PGA Tour wins inside the past six years, added to the Masters of 2012 and 2014. His status as a prime candidate to don another Green Jacket on Sunday is fully deserved. Even more endearing is Watson’s extravagant style. He is a genuine entertainer.
Watson, though, polarises opinions. His conduct on the course has occasionally been off-putting – ill-informed comment about the wider world even more so. Yet, sitting down in a Texan locker room with the left-hander reveals a highly likeable, essentially shy individual. The 37-year-old is also anxious to address his flaws when, to be blunt, his success suggests he need not bother.
“Yes, but at the same time, in my first five years on tour I was really bad. It took me five years to get a win,” says Watson. “From my first win to where I am now … that is improvement. There is still room for more.”
A glimpse of the imagination and vision that set Watson apart from so many of his opponents was in evidence back in his childhood. “Even around the house I wasn’t playing with toys,” he recalls. “I was playing golf around the house with one club, going this way and the other way.”
By the age of 12 Watson was achieving sub-70 rounds. The player who most appealed to him then was an extrovert. “Payne Stewart stood out,” Watson says. “When you watched on TV he was different, right? The way he dressed stood out. When you watched on television, everyone else was dressed like I am today and then you saw a guy with knickers on, and you were like ‘That guy!’ He was different, so I started watching him, watching his career. He was who I wanted to be like, to be different.”
Does Watson, the man who contemplates new movies and fast cars on the course over key shots, believe his thought process truly is unique? “Well, not a lot of golfers will admit to it,” Watson says, with a smile. “If you have a mental coach, they will probably tell you to stay away from those thoughts. To focus for five hours, maybe with 20 minutes from one shot to the next, you are going to have random thoughts. I am not going to lie about it to anybody, these are true thoughts.
“In terms of my golf game itself, yes, I am different because of the way I shape the ball. My skill set compared to the other guys is different.
“It is not going to crush me if I don’t make No1 in the world. It is not going to crush me if I never win again. There are more important things in life, so my views on life are different from those of a lot of guys. Not all of them but a lot.”
Which brings us back to Gerry, a former Green Beret – as was Tiger Woods’s father, Earl Woods – turned power plant worker. Watson’s caddie, Ted Scott, once revealed that meeting his employer’s father represented one of the most formidable experiences of his life. Once Gerry had accepted Scott as a trusted lieutenant of his son, the coolness lifted. Towards Bubba, as a child or adult, Gerry was firm in instilling a work ethic.
“When I won for the first time, in 2010, my dad was to pass away three months later,” Watson says. “I will never forget his comments on the day after I won the Travelers Championship. I called him to see how he was doing – he had cancer, so I was calling every day to check on him – and he said: ‘What are you doing?’ I said: ‘Nothing.’ He said: ‘Why aren’t you practising? You are done, Sunday is over, there is going to be a new champion next Sunday.’ His whole thing was, ‘That’s great, you did great but you have got to get better.’
“His whole thing was just about practice. If we are sitting here, say the two of us, as top players, who is going to practise the more? Who is going to go to the next level? That practice doesn’t mean just hitting range balls. It means short game, it means going to play a round of golf, learning about courses. It might not look like it but there is a strategy behind everything I do.
“It is about pushing to get better. That was my dad’s thing, don’t settle for the one win, push for the second, then the third.”
There are no pauses during time spent with Watson. Topics vary wildly; the Floridian lowers his voice when contemplating US failings in the Ryder Cup before giving a perfectly salient analysis. Watson is yet to feature on a winning side in three appearances but disputes fitting in with the team narrative causes him a problem. “My own personal belief is this: it is very hard to make our team,” he says. “Some companies – not mine – give bonuses, you get more praise because you make the team.
“I think you are so focused on making the team that you lose the fact of ‘Wait, let’s win this event.’ Not just make it to the event. I think we lose focus of winning because of the praise for just making the team.
“I love it, my country. I love that we have so many freedoms. I don’t care if I lose nine Ryder Cups, I just want to win one. I want that feeling.
“They respect you enough in 2012 to put you out first match on Sunday, trying to get that first point. I didn’t do it and then you see my point would have done it. It is heartbreaking. I want to feel that pleasure of winning.
“If you look at when I play with another partner, it is great. On my own? I haven’t won a match yet; Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup. I have only tied one. With a partner, I have played really well. Myself and Jeff Overton, two rookies, even won our first match in Wales. Last time, myself and Matt Kuchar were 10 under and lost on the 15th hole.”
Such honesty is recurring. Take his memories from the 2012 Masters. When Watson thinks back to the point at which he tied the lead after four birdies in a row on day four, he recalls: “It is in your wildest dreams but you don’t expect it. When it happens, you are scared to death.”
“I didn’t even know what Adam said,” he says. “You can tell me I’m the favourite but it doesn’t mean I will play well. If you look at the shape of the course, the par-fives, you have to think I have an advantage. That doesn’t mean I am going to play well. It just means on paper the advantage goes to the long driver who hits it this way; 2nd, 13th, 15th, I am hitting shorter irons into these holes.”
This candour has seen him routinely misrepresented: Watson has long given up trying to alter perceptions of him. Perhaps it is sad that he has no desire to fight the system, no inherent wish to reshape opinion.
“I used to watch and read media but there is too much negative stuff. There has been stuff written about me that isn’t true. There is no way to correct it; I am just one person and media is mass. I just have to take it on the chin and keep going.
“I will watch majors; everybody watches majors. If my friends like Rickie Fowler, Webb Simpson, Aaron Baddeley, guys I love and pull for, are winning something, then I will watch them coming down a stretch but I don’t watch regular events. I never read any articles.
“I love golf but it is my job. What if someone kept coming to you and saying you were the greatest one week and the worst the next? There is always a fluctuation, you need to find air somewhere or it all becomes too much.
“It is not about being sensitive. If they tell you how great you are, then you think you are better than everybody else. If they tell you how bad you are, you think you are no good. So why not just ignore it all?”
Watson believes he has attention deficit disorder but has no interest in formal diagnosis. “I don’t want to find out the truth,” he says. “You have to think I do have it; right now I want to go and do other things – no offence. You might be bored listening to me as well. It is a disadvantage but it is an advantage. If you are missing the cut, you don’t care but, if you are playing great, you focus.
“What I have noticed, and what my caddie has noticed, is that in a pressure situation, where everything is going in that direction – trying to make a cut or trying to win – my focus homes in.” A prime example is that play-off shot on the 10th hole at Augusta in 2012, from a position where fans pay homage year on year.
Watson would regard it as a “privilege and honour” to don a Green Jacket again. “A third would be that much more proof to myself that I can play the game at a high level, in tough moments,” he adds – plus a further illustration to the watching world of this player’s brilliance, though Watson would not give that a second thought.
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