Watson's second Masters win changed him for the better
Winning a green jacket changes any golfer’s life. Winning a second one changed Bubba Watson.
When Watson won the 2012 Masters Tournament with an audacious playoff shot out of the trees, the Georgia Bulldog from the Florida panhandle was as awkward draped in the iconic jacket as a country club guest forced to wear a loaner coat into the dining room.
“The first one – I wouldn’t say it’s an embarrassment – but it’s such a shock,” Watson said of the aftermath of becoming a major champion. “We all believe we’re good enough and when you do it your dreams come true and you actually did it – now what do I do? So many people are coming at you, you just want to run and hide from everybody.”
That’s essentially what Watson did in 2012. He dutifully wore the jacket on a brief post-Masters media blitz before hiding it in his closet. When asked to don it for a photo shoot, Watson stiffly wore it behind the clubhouse of an Arizona golf course for two minutes, constantly looking over his shoulder to make sure nobody else could see it. When a golf cart appeared in the distance, he hastily stripped it off saying, “I’ve got to get out of this,” and stuffed it out of sight in the garment bag.
“My friends that came over to the house, I’d say ‘No, you can’t see the jacket,’ ” Watson explained. “ ‘I put it up. Nobody’s seeing it.’ ”
Two years later, Watson is almost as comfortable in the green jacket as he was cruising over Augusta National Golf Club’s second nine last April to a relatively unharried three-stroke victory. In the weeks after his 2014 Masters triumph, Watson wore the green jacket while speaking at a banquet at the University of Georgia, dishing out pizza and taking selfies at Milton High School, posing in class pictures at Bagdad Elementary and throwing the first pitch at the Pensacola Blue Wahoos baseball game.
“For my own personal satisfaction – because I’m not worried about what other people say or think – it’s cool for me to back it up,” Watson said. “This year I kind of know how to handle it a little more. You get a certain popularity with the first one and then when you back it up with a second it’s different. I’ve learned how to deal with it a little bit.
“This year – if I want to be this person that I want to be and I want to grow the game of golf that’s helped me – instead of hiding it, let’s use this platform we’ve gotten. That’s why this year I went to my schools and tried to talk to the kids and just show that from even their small towns people are living their dream. That’s why this one’s different.”
This gets to the heart of what’s different about two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson – something he thinks is bigger than golf.
“If you don’t use your platform the right way, it’s a waste,” Watson said. “If at the end of my life people define me as a golfer, then obviously I wasn’t doing the right things.”
WATSON LEFT Augusta last year inspired not only by his performance but by the efforts of the juniors competing in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt competition.
“I wanted to be about inspiration and helping young kids,” he said. “Augusta National, bringing those kids there, bringing the juniors there, that inspired me that week. I went out there and saw them on that Sunday, and for me I wanted to do that to kids in my own little way. How I can try to inspire kids to be better, whether it’s in golf or not?”
Watson started by returning to each of the schools he attended along the way. At his elementary, middle and high schools in Bagdad, Fla., he tearfully presented $65,000 in checks to fund capital improvements and computer labs. At Georgia, he spent time with the golf team and spoke at the annual scholar-athletes banquet.
“I went back and thanked my teachers for always yelling at me and their hard work and dedication to see me through,” Watson said. “I actually got a (college) degree and there wasn’t one given to me. It wasn’t an honoree. I had to do work, which is weird. Same thing I did at my elementary school. For me it was all about thanking them and showing these kids that they can get through it.”
The sincerity of Watson’s gesture toward the institutions and people who pushed him along the way touched his college coach, Chris Haack.
“For a guy to come back and be thanking people who helped him get where he got said a lot for him,” Haack said.
SCHOOL WASN’T always a priority for Watson, who admits he wasn’t always “nice” back in his younger days. His stubbornness and difficulty accepting advice is part of the reason he sat out his entire last season behind fellow all-Americans on the Georgia roster. Watson harbored some resentment after leaving Georgia, even if his coaches never felt that way about him.
“Chris Haack, we’ve always battled; me and my parents have battled; me and my friends have battled,” Watson said. “I had good days and bad days. I told (Haack) I loved him and thanked him for your bad times with me and the good times with me. It was just my satisfaction showing people that I did care for them even though we butted heads once in awhile.”
Haack believes Watson’s returning to Georgia seven years later and finishing his degree requirements in 2008 was a catalyst to his maturity and improved success on tour.
“That was something that meant a lot more to him than people ever thought,” Haack said. “He told me a lot of it was embarrassment that (he) didn’t play and didn’t get his degree and he’d let his mom and dad down by not finishing. When he did, that all changed because his whole self-esteem changed and he put the ‘G’ on the bag and wanted to become a part of the program.”
WATSON CHRISTENED 2014 as the “year of rejoicing,” a mantra he culled from his Bible studies. The year had more than enough highlights to live up to its name – three wins including a second Masters and first World Golf Championship victory overseas and more than $6 million in winnings.
More importantly, he and wife Angie adopted a second child in December – a daughter, Dakota, to join her brother, Caleb, who was adopted shortly before Watson’s first Masters win.
“As I get older and realize family is the most important and my wife is the most important and my kids are the most important,” he said, “it starts getting farther and farther away from perfecting golf and it’s now just playing golf. I just started my 10th season on tour and me as a person, my mindset has changed. More as a person. I think the golf has gotten better because of how I’ve changed as a person and how I look at life.”
Watson’s golf has never been better. At No. 2, he’s the highest-ranked American in the world, the prime U.S. grade in the void as injuries and age diminish Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
“Well, I think I’m as good as I can be right now,” Watson said. “I don’t see anything that I need to really change or do differently. Now it’s the other people around me, hopefully they start struggling so I get even better or I look even better. … Everything’s in the right place in my life. I’m thinking better. I’m focused on the right things outside of golf.”
It took him almost two years to win again after his breakthrough 2012 Masters win. But with a 64-64 weekend to storm to victory last year at Riviera a week after missing a short putt to force a playoff in Phoenix, the full force of Watson’s talent took over.
“It was a big deal,” he said of snapping his post-Masters rut. “It kind of got me spring-boarded in the right direction.”
His season was wall-to-wall in made cuts, top 10s and victories. His notable exceptions were the other majors, where he missed his only cuts of the season at both the U.S. and British Opens and embarrassed himself at the PGA Championship with a series of public relations missteps. He stubbornly refused to participate in a harmless long-drive competition built into the practice rounds on one hole – “I was just trying to prove a point that nobody cared about,” he said. He also was caught on audio blurting out a rare expletive and whining about the rain. He was skewered by fans on social media as well as by the mainstream media.
Watson came back the next day and thanked his critics.
“Obviously I think the big learning curve that I had was the PGA Championship when the media or Twitter people, or whatever it is, called me out on my issues and hopefully I resolved them,” he said. “I’m going to still mess up some days.”
In a pro-am conversation in December, Watson brought up the PGA incident repeatedly, trying to hammer home the lessons he learned.
“The reason I keep bringing up the PGA Championship is because it was probably the lowest moment of the year and I think I’ve improved from it,” he said. “I’ve still got to keep going.
“It’s a touchy subject but the Bible teaches you how to be a better person, or whatever. It doesn’t tell you to hate people. It tells you to love all people. You don’t have to agree with them and some people don’t have to agree with my opinions. It also says you’re a sinner and you’re going to make mistakes.”
ON THE GOLF course and off, Watson has always tried to be noticed. From the Payne Stewart-inspired knickers he wore as a junior to the hot pink driver he still hits farther than everyone else, he’s demanded people look at him.
“He always said one day people are going to recognize me because of this stuff,” said Jim Douglas, an assistant coach at Georgia. “He was right.”
“Bubba was ahead of his time,” Haack said. “He got Twitter before I understood what Twitter was. He understood the power of Twitter. He wore those canary yellow and hot pink knickers. He always did things to stand out. In this day and age, that’s what you do.”
That show-off instinct hasn’t dissipated with his flashy toys like the “General Lee” Dodge Charger from the Dukes of Hazzard or the one-of-a-kind hover cart he kept after a commercial video shoot that went viral. He’s been seeking the spotlight since begging Ellen DeGeneres to invite him as a guest on her show with trick shots on social media to the music videos he shot with his group of friends, the Golf Boys, and the solo rap effort Bubbaclaus he released in December.
“This is to make fun of myself and show golf’s lighter side,” he said. “I think people are going to hopefully see me in a different light.”
Watson’s light, however, fluctuates constantly from bright to dark. He can be a walking contradiction. Outgoing one minute and neurotic the next. Arrogant and self-deprecating. Endearingly charming while often not endearing himself to peers or strangers. Quick to tears and quicker to tantrums. Laughing with pro-am partners on one green and erupting at fans or volunteers over a shutter click or movement behind the next tee.
“He’s like the box of chocolates in Forrest Gump – you never know what you’re going to get,” Haack said. “He can turn it on and off just like that. You get Bubba one-on-one and in a moment when he isn’t trying to be Bubba, sometimes he shows you his soft side.”
Georgia’s current star golfer, junior Lee McCoy, has experienced the full range of Bubba in a few encounters. Once at a UGA football tailgate, Watson acted like McCoy wasn’t there. The next time at an athletic banquet, he was like a best friend.
“I’ve been around Bubba three times and seen three totally different Bubbas,” McCoy said. “It matters what scenario you put him in. Bubba’s kind of an odd cat in a ways. You get Bubba in a situation where he’s comfortable and with somebody he knows, he loosens up and is really interactive and entertaining.”
These diverse Bubbas are visible on the golf course. There may be nobody in the game more interesting to watch with a mesmerizing combination of power and creativity. Last season Watson became the only golfer in history to average more than 310 yards off the tee as well as better than 60 percent accuracy hitting the fairway. When he misses, his imagination allows recoveries that leave observers marveling and drawing comparisons to two-time Masters champion Seve Ballesteros.
“If I keep hitting it in the trees, one of those is going to be a great recovery,” he joked. “Hopefully that’s the one they show on TV.”
But when things don’t go his way, Watson’s behavior can be off-putting. He’s easily distracted by ancillary movements and noises outside the ropes. And the cameras and microphones that follow him more frequently as he is a fixture in contention pick up the occasional barking at his caddie, Ted Scott, that often comes across as petulant and deflecting blame.
“I never blame Teddy for anything,” said Watson, with Scott at his side nodding in acknowledgement. “Teddy will be the first one to tell you that. First thing I do is say, ‘Man I’m sorry, I just wasn’t focused on that shot.’ When I say ‘Teddy!’ I’m just letting him know, ‘I’m talking to you.’ It’s not that I’m yelling at him. When I get over the ball, it’s not his fault, it’s my fault. Teddy is 41 and we’ve been together for nine years. He’s a grown man and if he doesn’t like what I’m doing, he’ll quit. I see him as a friend and he happens to caddie for me. The public is going to see it and 50 percent are going to like me and 50 percent are going to hate me. That’s how it is.”
WATSON IS AWARE of his faults and the toll it sometimes takes on his success.
“I think the only thing I’m missing in golf is the perfect mind,” he said. “The ability is there, just how do I stay more consistent with my mind? I think mentally I’ve gotten better. Still not very good, but it’s gotten better.”
Watson still doesn’t take too well to instruction. The only people he listens to are his wife, caddie, trainer and manager. As much as a sports psychologist might help his admittedly “weak” mind, he’ll never consult one – nor a swing coach for his self-taught game.
“No, I’m nuts. They’d quit their job,” he said. “Enough press has told me I’m mental, so I’ve got to fix it. And I read the Bible, so the Bible is the best coach I think for outside life. So I think I won’t ever need a mental coach. If I do, like I’d said about a swing coach, I’d quit the game before I do that.”
Watson’s mental weaknesses have proven costliest on some of the major stages. At Pinehurst No. 2 last year, he convinced himself he couldn’t play the course well and subsequently missed the U.S. Open cut. A month later at Hoylake, his mind lapsed when the presence of too many people inside the ropes triggered his mood and he missed another cut.
Then came the PGA at Valhalla, where Watson’s mind was turbulent from the day he arrived and he never contended.
“I don’t make excuses. I was terrible at these tournaments,” Watson said. “At the PGA, when my ball – as hard as I hit it – when it has water, it changes the spin. So when I’m trying to hit a cut, sometimes it doesn’t cut. So just a light rain, my ball flight off the driver is just off.”
At Augusta, however, Watson’s mind is typically free of the clutter that suppresses his success at other majors. All the pre-tournament attention paid to Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott last year left him alone to prepare. And there’s little between the ropes to distract him from letting his strength and imagination run loose.
“As far as he hits it and as far as he can shape it around, there’s not many places that fit a guy like that so well,” Hunter Mahan said of Watson and Augusta. “When Tiger used to step up there he was four ahead of everyone else. It’s kind of the same for Bubba now.”
Rickie Fowler, who finished in the top five of every major last year, believes Watson is far from finished drafting his Masters legacy.
“Him having two (green jackets) and he’s 36 now, he could probably at least get two more,” Fowler said. “The place is perfect for him.”
“That’s just how I know how to play golf,” he said of his comfort level at Augusta National. “It all depends on the course. British, it’s all determined by wind. U.S. and PGA, its all determined by how they set the golf course up. But you go to Augusta, everybody hits a lot of drivers.
“I like Augusta because it’s Augusta. You can hit drivers and it’s a bigger golf course. At the same time there’s not a lot of rough. There’s thick trees but not a lot of branches. So with Phil’s imagination or Tiger’s imagination, Jack’s imagination, the greats of the game can all use their imagination to figure out how to get around this pine tree and onto the green. It gives you a chance to do that. Augusta is a very difficult course and some day I’m going to be bad at it, but right now it helps me when that driver is working pretty good. Give you a chance to hammer it and use you imagination.”
WATSON IS THE 17th player to win multiple green jackets. The other 16 are either in the World Golf Hall of Fame or, in the case of Tiger Woods, waiting to turn 40 to be eligible for immediate induction.
Fifteen of those Hall of Famers ranked either among the top-25 all-time in PGA Tour wins or top-10 in European Tour wins. The closest to Watson – Ben Crenshaw – has 19 PGA Tour wins (plus one European Tour victory), won three NCAA titles and captained a storybook Ryder Cup comeback at Brookline in 1999 to bolster his résumé.
With seven PGA Tour wins so far, Watson has work left to do to get on that Hall of Fame watchlist. While holding two majors already qualifies him for consideration when he’s 40, the generally accepted minimum number of official tour-sanctioned victories for election is 15.
“I’ve never thought about the Hall of Fame,” Watson said. “As a kid you’re always thinking about winning a tournament, getting your tour card, winning a major championship. You never make a putt as a 12-year-old going, ‘I made the Hall of Fame.’ You can’t do that. You get voted in and fit a certain criteria. For me to get that recognition, that’s cool. It’s going to be tough for me to make it and let’s say I never make it, it’s still cool for me to be in that conversation. I’ve never dreamed of that so when they started mentioning it, that’s a big deal.”
Of course, the only players to win three or more majors not in the Hall of Fame are Jamie Anderson and Bob Ferguson, who each won three consecutive Open Championships in the 19th century spanning a six-year run from 1877-82. So another green jacket or a different major would go a long way to supporting Watson’s chances.
Watson’s golf goals remain fairly modest. He checked three off last year – winning a second major, winning a World Golf Championship event and winning outside the U.S. He achieved those last two in one dramatic hole-out bunker shot that led to a playoff victory over Tim Clark in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China.
“I want to keep winning,” he said. “For my own satisfaction, my main goal is winning 10 tournaments on the PGA Tour. My thing is not for the Hall of Fame. When you look at the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s, I believe that now it’s a bigger game. You’ve got guys from Asia coming to play. It’s better talent across the world and better talent on tour. Everybody in the field has a chance to win. So if you get double-digit wins with the talent pool now, I feel like you’ve proven yourself. That’s why I always say 10.”
Beyond that, Watson has other dreams that might seem fanciful considering his personality.
“I’ve always dreamed of Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup captain,” he said. “That’s an honor. It used to be an honor. Your career was this, so we’re going to let you be the captain as an honor. That’s how I’ve always seen that, so I’ve always had a dream or goal to have my career good enough to where they would ask me to be.”
OUTSIDE OF GOLF, Watson’s goals are wildly diverse. He bought a minority stake in the Pensacola Blue Wahoos minor-league franchise, which includes selling a Bubba-Dub Grilled Cheese sandwich with hash browns inside and a restaurant/bar behind home plate renamed Bubba’s Sand Trap.
His annual Bubba Bash benefitting families, children, faith and the military – “the things that really get to my heart,” he said – spans four nights in four cities (Orlando; Opelousas, La.; Phoenix and Seattle) and features his favorite Christian hip-hop artists.
He even plans to extend his own solo singing career with a four-song CD and videos along the lines of his Bubbaclaus viral hit.
“I’ve always wanted to do a music CD – not because I’m good but because I just want to do it,” he said. “Got a song writer in. After the Masters we’ll shoot the lyrics for four songs and then tape it. I want videos of all my songs. I can’t sing. This ain’t going to make money. Any products or sales will go straight to charity. I’m trying to give as much as I can.”
Watson is at a place in his life – even with two kids – where doing what he wants is an easy matter. He’s accrued more than $27 million in on-course earnings and even more in endorsements.
“Bubba has to keep doing something,” said Mahan, one of his former Golf Boys partners. “I don’t think he can sit around and just play golf all day long. He likes the attention and likes doing stuff like that.”
Another former Golf Boys partner as well as his former coach think his musical future, however, is limited.
“It’s probably the complete opposite of his golf future,” Fowler said.
“Stick to golf,” Haack said.
Watson isn’t walking away from the game any time soon. He’s only three years younger than Tiger Woods, but his body hasn’t broken down in the same ways in spite of the brute power he unleashes with every swing.
Ultimately, Watson hopes that when the day comes that he does hang up the green jacket and retire, he’ll have left behind something more than a series of tournament highlights.
“I love the game of golf. The game of golf got me where I am today and I’ll never leave the game of golf,” he said. “At the end of a career do you want them to know you because you had 10 wins, or as Bubba Watson and not golfer Bubba Watson?”
SLIDESHOW: Bubba Watson
VIDEO: Watson Realizes He Could Win
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