Georgia golf coach Chris Haack has a hard time convincing people that the only major winner the Bulldogs have ever produced wasn’t good enough to play his senior season.
“People are always amazed when I tell them this story and say, ‘Gosh, you didn’t play Bubba?’” Haack said. “The only time in NCAA history that a team had five guys make third team All-American or higher was that 2001 team. That’s how good that team was. Bubba was sitting there as your sixth guy.”
Watson competed in only one tournament his senior year: the Chris Schenkel Invitational, where he was the defending champion. The rest of the season, he sat at home while veterans Erik Compton, Nick Cassini, Bryant Odom and David Miller joined freshman Ryan Hybl in winning seven tournaments, some by 20 or more shots.
“The reality was Bubba could have been in that lineup and one of the other guys sitting out,” Haack said. “I was six strong. That’s how good that team was. I don’t think there’s any doubt one of the reasons they were so good is they had to work at it because you had a guy the quality of Bubba Watson sitting at home and could get in that lineup on any day. We didn’t win the NCAAs that year, so it might have been the biggest bonehead mistake on my part. But one of those guys was going to be left at home.”
Sitting was not something that sat well with Watson. He would often beat his teammates in practice, but the usual qualifying meritocracy that Haack is noted for wasn’t strictly implemented that season.
“Don’t know the reason why. Always speculation,” Watson said. “I don’t know what was going through his mind. I just know I was hurt because I was ranked preseason All-American and didn’t get to play. But it made me stronger and better and helped us grow in life. Every problem at the time seems the worst problem in the world, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal.”
It was Haack who brought Watson to Georgia in the first place. The coach first noticed Watson’s immense talent when he was working for the American Junior Golf Association. It was hard to miss the young Watson with his flashy knickers and robust game.
“He was always somebody who kind of stood out,” said Haack, who captained against Watson’s team in a Canon Cup event. “I was well aware of his talents and what he could do and the way he could move the ball. I knew how good he could be.”
Haack steered Watson to Faulkner State Community College when his Milton High School grades weren’t good enough to go directly to Georgia.
“I told Bubba if you go down there and do what you need to do academically and graduate, I’ll have a scholarship waiting on you,” Haack said.
Watson arrived in Athens – where his father attended his first school as a child – in 2000 ready to make his mark. His mother had been a Mississippi State Bulldog, so Watson already loved the mascot and Georgia’s red-and-black uniforms.
That first season, Watson won his only collegiate tournament – the Schenkel – as the Bulldogs went on to win the Southeastern Conference. He was named second team All-SEC and honorable mention All-American.
At the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs were eliminated from the cut-down to the final 15 in a playoff by Wake Forest. Stories have circulated that Haack had mandated none of his players go for a certain par-5 green in two and that Watson disobeyed. Whether that led to what happened the next season, the principal characters aren’t saying.
“There’s no doubt in all the years I saw a lot of these kids come up through the ranks – whether it was Scott Verplank or Tiger (Woods) or Phil (Mickelson) – Bubba Watson had the ability to move the ball and curve the ball left, right, high and low better than anybody I ever saw,” Haack said. “His biggest learning curve was that he never saw a shot he didn’t think he could hit. As you go up levels, he’d see that island green with a 3-wood and he could knock it on there. But three out of 10 times it was probably going to go in the water and cost him the tournament. That’s a lot of kids, but with Bubba the shots were even more extreme. Those were the type of things that held him back even a little bit here.”
Haack said he had no idea about Watson’s lingering bitterness regarding the situation until he read about it years later after Watson started making a name for himself on the PGA Tour. It was Haack who reached out to clear the air.
“I sat down and wrote him a two-page letter and told him I was sad to read that he had those feelings and explained what I always thought and felt about him,” Haack said. “To his credit, three days later he called me. Talked for an hour on the phone. It gave him an opportunity to talk about why he felt that way and gave me an opportunity to explain that it had nothing to do with him personally. I told him I was going to disappoint one of you guys and I was sorry that it had to be him.
“But also a lot of great things came out of that. He probably worked a little harder to prove me wrong. Also, in the time he spent not traveling with the team, he met Angie. I’m a big believer that everything happens for a reason and generally things in life turn out if you do things right.”
On this point, Watson is in full agreement.
“From a personal aspect, it helped me more than it hurt me,” he said. “I was home so I was able to meet my girlfriend, my wife. I got to practice on my own. Got to refocus and think about how tough life is. It made me stronger as a golfer, for sure.”
The conversation rekindled Watson’s interest in returning to Georgia to finish his degree.
“I said I don’t know why I didn’t play, I don’t care why I didn’t play – I’m over it,” Watson said. “But I want to graduate from the University of Georgia.”
Said Haack: “He was sponsoring junior golf and would talk to kids and it was very important to him to be able to talk to those kids about getting their degree and he never felt like he could before. That meant something to him.”
With Haack’s help, Watson met with the dean to determine what he needed to do to complete his degree in consumer economics. When Watson came to Athens for required coursework, he stayed at Haack’s house.
“He helped me do that and made it possible,” Watson said. “I have no ill feelings toward him. He has none toward me.”
Angie Watson said getting his degree was a big step forward for Bubba.
“All part of growing up for him and being a bigger man,” she said. “Sometimes when we know we’ve made the wrong decision in life, sometimes the guilt of that is hard to live with. When we make it right, it feels that much more gratifying. Bubba would look back at some of the decisions he made when he was younger that he didn’t make the right decision not getting his diploma at Georgia. For him to go back made everything right and it’s good.”
Watson immediately put the Georgia “G” logo on his golf bag, something “special” he would not do until he earned that diploma.
“He wanted to be able to wear it proudly,” Haack said.
Watson has been a visible supporter for Georgia ever since. He’s been honored more than once between the hedges at Sanford Stadium during football games. He also won a bet against Angie’s former women’s basketball coach, Andy Landers, by hitting a golf ball out of Sanford Stadium.
“Coach Landers didn’t think he could get a driver up quick enough,” Angie said.
When Watson did, he won the right to sit on the women’s bench against Louisiana State as an assistant coach to Landers, a 900-game winner. The Bulldogs won that key game, and it remains one of Watson’s favorite Georgia moments.
“He loves Georgia and was the same way before he got his diploma,” his wife said.
Perhaps no Bulldog moment compares to the one last April when Watson donned the green jacket and finally gave Georgia a major winner to counter the boasting of archrival Georgia Tech and its major fraternity that includes Bobby Jones, Larry Mize, David Duval and Stewart Cink.
His first words after Charl Schwartzel slipped the iconic jacket on Watson’s shoulders were, “Go Dogs!”
“Obviously brought a little bit more spotlight to our program and put us on the forefront a little bit,” said Haack, whose Georgia teams have won two NCAA titles and become a fertile conduit to the PGA Tour. “Having all the fans down there yelling ‘Go Dogs’ and so forth, I’m assuming it gave him a little bit of a boost.”
Haack never imagined Watson would reach the highest pinnacles in golf.
“There are just so few guys that get there,” he said. “To be top 10 in the world is so hard to do. So I don’t know if you ever imagine any of your guys doing that. You hope so.
“But I will say this about Bubba. You look at his junior career and he had a lot of second places. You look at his college career and he won one time and had a lot of high finishes. Early on in his professional career he had a lot of high finishes. He always had a difficult time finishing and getting into that winning circle. I remember watching him play the Hartford and thinking when he won, was this the thing that finally relaxed him to win? It was always a matter of getting over that hump and learning that you belong. You could tell the talent was off the charts, but winning was a different issue.”
Now, Haack believes there is no limit for the player who once graced his bench.
“No telling what he’s capable of doing now,” Haack said. “Now it wouldn’t surprise me to see him be world No. 1 at some point.”