The Meaning of Bubba Watson

Wednesday May 29th, 2013
Watson's ability and willingness to relate to people have added to his popularity.
Blair Bunting

They say if Shakespeare were alive today, he’d be writing for television. Of course he would be. Is there a better place to tell stories? Consider Bubba Watson’s work on the small screen. On Masters Sunday, in the space of an hour, he told his story, in the broad strokes that play so well on TV, to 13.5 million viewers across America. He played unlikely shots. He cried in his mother’s arms. He thanked the guys in the locker room. People were enthralled.

In fact, all across TV-land, the citizenry could not get enough. We demanded he tell his story again and again, in different tones and in different settings. Bubba, dog-tired but in good cheer, obliged. The red light opens him like a spring flower. Whether he was on PBS with Charlie Rose (high priest of solemnity) or on CBS with David Letterman (godfather of irony) or on CNN with Piers Morgan (fresh prince of edgy), Bubba killed. Like Arnold Palmer before him, Bubba’s made for TV. Overnight, he once again made the General Lee the most famous orange Dodge in the world. If you don’t know how many of newly adopted son Caleb’s diapers the proud father has changed to date, you haven’t been paying attention. Some of his airwave quotes are already fixed in our minds. What single word did Bubba use when Letterman asked him to describe his game? You know: “awesome.” Dave cracked up.

Of course, you can afford to be cheeky when you’re telling the truth. The length, the curve, the foul balls, the recoveries. The man’s golf is awesome. Tiger was never wired for that sort of easy candor. His father was a braggart, so Tiger went the other way. For years in victory Tiger would say, “I got a little lucky.” So, so . . . British. No, dude, you didn’t get lucky. More than a decade ago, when Bubba was still a Georgia Bulldog and Rory was still a pup, Tiger had a monopoly on awesome. But not anymore. Now he shares the stage with Bubba and Rory and Phil, with K.J. and DJ, with Rickie Fowler even. Are they winners the way Tiger was a winner? Not even close. We like them for other reasons. Bubba most especially. Or if not most especially, most recently.

“Awesome,” Dave said, repeating the answer of his green-jacketed guest with the Justin Bieber hairdo. The late-night host’s whole body chuckled. But if the only thing Bubba had was wiseguy wit, we wouldn’t be sitting here in the den talking about him while Golf Channel re-airs David Feherty’s interview with the Pride of Bagdad, Fla.

More than once Bubba has told the story of the struggles he and his wife, Angie, went through to adopt their first child. He has told the story of his father’s service in Vietnam in midlife and his fight with cancer at its end. Watson has told the story of how he improved his golf by improving his attitude, with the help of his wife and caddie and friends. (It makes you wonder what John Daly could’ve done if he’d had a similar team around him.) Watson has told the story of his Christian faith without being preachy about it. There are so many roads that will lead you to this guy’s front door. We need stories in our lives, and Bubba is a walking storybook.

Wherever Bubba was in these weeks between the Masters and the Players, the word story accompanied him. Charlie Rose praised Bubba’s “story,” and so did others. On Masters Sunday, a veteran TV producer, a man who has stories swirling in his head all day, told me that he went from feeling indifferent about Bubba to fighting for a seat on the Bubbawagon. Think about it: A trained professional, able to predict the page 28 plot twist while reading the second page of the script, got lost in Bubba’s story, which allowed him to become part of Bubba’s story. What a feeling that is.

This whole overnight-sensation thing (at age 33) had to unfold at Augusta. No golf course, and no golf tournament, creates stories like Augusta National and the Masters. (Sorry, the Players Championship at the Stadium course at TPC Sawgrass.) Things are so intimate at Augusta, and intimate is TV’s forte. Every year at the Masters you think the tall pines and the broad slopes and the old ghosts are going to dwarf the actual tournament, but then strange things happen, new chapters in the continuing saga unfold: Phil’s playing out of the bamboo and King Louis’s jarring one from 253 and Bubba’s smashing that remote-control pitching wedge.

His tap-in to win was only a beginning. By Sunday night we were totally vested in the long journey he took to get to Butler Cabin, the details of his hooked wedge off the pine needles, the future of the Bubba and Angie Watson Medical Center in Kenya. Who am I? Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going? Stanislavski urged his actors to ask those questions relentlessly. Bubba’s been following the Russian director’s dictum on instinct alone.

A week after the Bubba Masters, a grandmother named Patti Arnette, wife of a golf teacher, was having a meal in a Jacksonville restaurant when the conversation turned to Bubba. Her eyes immediately welled up. “He has such a great story,” she said. She doesn’t know Watson. She’s doesn’t watch much golf on TV. Still, she got drawn into the Masters on Sunday, and into Bubba’s story.

Family is at the heart of Arnette’s life, and her path to Watson was through the ups and downs Bubba and Angie endured to become a family of three. In interviews Bubba described the adoption process and how he and his wife were “rejected” by some pregnant mothers. Such a harsh word. The raw honesty of his storytelling is so moving and unexpected. Many of us are like Arnette, drawn to people who know firsthand the vagaries of life. We can relate to such people. Tiger could never show frailty. That’s part of what made him so great. Bubba must, and it’s part of what makes him so good.

But wait, there’s more. Bubba is the latest in a series of golfing DIYers, and we’re always fascinated by them. Hagen, Palmer, Daly, now Bubba. Golf, of course, has a million rules, about how to dress, how to keep score, how to swing a club. Bubba, the whole world now knows, never took a lesson. His swing is all weird angles and dancing feet, and his lefthanded clubs, customized in odd ways by Matt Rollins at Ping, would feel downright weird to Phil Mickelson or Barack Obama or any other southpaw golfer. Watson’s sui generis swing represents liberation to any of us who can’t get the headcover to stay between our lead arm and rib cage in the downswing or perform any other teacher’s drill. And if you’re looking to play with a polka-dotted shaft, have at it. Bubba’s in all pink, and the rules are dying fast.

Do we really know him? Let’s not fool ourselves, now or ever again. Of course we don’t, quote, really know him. For now, we can say this: We like the goofy Golf Boys video, in which Bubba bounces around wearing overalls, no shoes and a custom-made Richard Mille watch easily worth $250,000. (The GBs video, a charity thing, has been viewed more than 4.6 million times on YouTube.) We like that he has posted more than 40,000 tweets, most of them three-word responses to regular fans. We like that his given name is Gerry Lester Watson Jr. but that he signs his scorecards with the nickname assigned to him as a baby. We like that he lost before he won, most notably at the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits, in that two-man playoff with Martin Kaymer, when Bubba hit a semi-nutty shot into a hazard on the last hole. We like that he seems to be embracing his various roles: golfer and philanthropist and pitchman, husband and father and son. We like that he’s not afraid to open his mouth, even if he’s going to stick his size 13 FootJoys in it now and again. We like that he once clocked a drive in a Tour event that went 410 yards. (Everybody digs the long ball.) We love that early last week in New Orleans he admitted to being out of the game, mentally. Candor always plays well in the long run. You can’t have a relationship with a liar. Not a good one, anyhow.

The Players wraps up on Mother’s Day, and Watson’s mom, Molly, will be there. Maybe that will be another chance for a Bubba-Molly moment on the final green, with the whole world watching. Bubba’s played in the Players only five times, with three missed cuts and two lousy finishes. Strange. Still, there’s no reason for Bubba 2012 not to play well there, as long as he’s tanned, rested and ready.

Bubba was at the Stadium course six days after his Masters win—and several days after his New York media blitz—for a Tim Tebow charity golf outing. He played out of a cart, but he didn’t play casually and he hammed it up for the crowd at 17, the TV-ready par-3 with the island green. With cameras rolling and fans watching, Watson yelled, “Tim Tebow, Tim Tebow—you’re the ugliest guy out here!” He never forgot why he was there in the first place.

But the telling moment was a quiet one, earlier in the round, when Watson stood on the 5th tee. There were no spectators there, no cameras, just Watson, his four amateur partners and an Army veteran named Dan Nevins, there to play an honorary tee shot with each group that came through. Nevins, like Watson, was wearing shorts. His lower legs are metal rods and his golf shoes were attached to plastic feet. He hits it great.

Watson shook the retired staff sergeant’s hand, looked at him from toe to head and said, “Do you mind if we ask you your story?”

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