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Masters champion Bubba Watson received a hero's welcome back in his hometown of Bagdad on Florida's Panhandle

Bubba Watson
Ben Van Hook / Sports Illustrated
Bubba Watson snaps a selfie in the packed Milton High School gymnasium in Bagdad, Fla.

For Bubba Watson to understand how far he has traveled in life, he had to go home again, to the hamlet of Bagdad (pop. 3,761) on Florida's Panhandle. He rolled into town in a sleek Mercedes sedan 11 days after his second Masters victory, and all of Bagdad was dressed up for the daylong Bubbapalooza: Hand-lettered signs adorned the front windows of many of the small, tidy homes; large banners flew in front of businesses, the proprietors bragging that they were BUBBA PROUD; welcome messages adorned the marquees of a couple of the lovely old churches. Watson's first stop was at his old elementary school, where he offered warm hugs to a couple of former teachers. Like Forrest Gump, Watson can be accidentally profound, and after settling in the auditorium he said, "This stage was a lot bigger when I was little." When he presented the principal with a $15,000 check for capital improvements, Watson bawled like a little boy who had skinned his knee.

A police escort with flashing lights led him to his next stop, Milton High. The gym was packed with 1,800 kids, the band was playing, and Mayor Guy Thompson offered a rousing introduction ("Once a Panther, always a Panther!"). It was pure Americana. When Watson glided into view, under an arch of balloons that spelled BUBBA, the noise was so intense, you could feel it in your chest.

"This is a dream come true," Watson told the crowd, and then he bowed his head. It took a few seconds for the assembled teenagers to realize he was choked up. A few murmured "Awwwwww," and then the gym was consumed with raucous cheers.

PHOTOS: More Sports Illustrated shots of Bubba Watson's homecoming from Ben Van Hook

Watson composed himself. "Where I came from, where I grew up, I never dreamed I'd be able to give back like this," he said. He went quiet again, and now he was sobbing. The kids cheered even louder. Watson wiped away the tears and produced from his green jacket—the green jacket—a $35,000 check to fund a new computer lab. A cheer went up. "Thank you, Bubba!" Clap-clap, clap, clap-clap. "Thank you, Bubba!" So choked up he couldn't speak, Watson put his hand to his forehead and saluted.

Watson had paid to have 450 pizzas brought in for the students, and he helped pass out slices when he wasn't being swarmed for photos that began appearing on social media channels at the speed of light. Eventually he was hustled by two police officers into the locker room, which was cool and quiet, with a white tile floor and black lockers. Watson took a series of deep breaths. These intensely personal celebrations are not easy for him. "I have issues, you know," he once told me. "I'm really conscious of my surroundings. I don't like enclosed spaces. I don't like fans on top of me."

Into the locker room strolled Murry Rutledge, Watson's P.E. teacher at Milton High and the golf coach during his senior year. They shared a long embrace and then got to telling stories about the good old days. "I remember in 10th grade," said Watson, who is 6'3", "I was so excited I could dunk, I did it in P.E., and you started screaming at me not to hang on the rim. The next time down the court, I did it again. You were yelling that you were gonna punish me, and I was like, 'What are you gonna do, kick me off the golf team?' We both knew that wasn't gonna happen. You were so mad, you just stormed off."

Both laughed heartily, and then Watson turned reflective. "I wasn't very nice back then," he said. "Angie has helped me a lot with that. Caleb has changed me the most."

Rutledge asked about Watson's wife and their adopted son, who had planned to make the trip to Bagdad. Bubba said they were back home in Orlando fighting colds. Then he offered a little insight into how marriage and fatherhood have changed him, saying to Rutledge, "You and I both love golf, but I've learned it's not what matters most. I used to dream about winning tournaments, being a hero. I never dreamed about how I could help other people. That's my focus now, being a hero off the course, not on. All I'm trying to do now is be a good role model for my son."

"I never dreamed I'd be able to give back like this," Bubba said. He went quiet again, and now he was sobbing.

Watson got a nod from a member of his entourage, signaling it was time to head to his old middle school, where he'd present a $15,000 check for an electronic sign and hand out autographed photos to all 700 students.

Later, in a quiet moment, Rutledge said, "I'd been hearing about Bubba Watson since he was 10. Talentwise he was incredible. But the question was always, Could he get his head together, could he keep his emotions in check? A lot of times he couldn't, and I think that was the case even when he got to the Tour. It's amazing how much he's grown up."

As the Tiger and Phil era wanes, Watson is positioned to be among the most dominant players in the sport, and its biggest attraction. Woods and Mickelson had national profiles as kids and were being groomed for stardom by their teens; they were nearly wholly formed when they arrived on the PGA Tour. Watson, 35, is a late bloomer, and his path has been as circuitous as the shot he hit out of the woods to win his first Masters, in 2012. What makes his story so compelling is that he is growing up before our eyes, and at times it's been an almighty struggle. Bubba deserves to be celebrated because he has taken on the arduous task of self-improvement, but his growth owes much to two people who have been by his side during this unlikely journey: Angie and his caddie, Ted Scott. It is their guidance that has allowed Bubba to be Bubba.

The former Angie Ball will never forget the first time she laid eyes on her future husband. It was the spring of 2001, and as a rookie on the WNBA's Charlotte Sting, she had blown out her left knee and subsequently returned to the University of Georgia for rehab. It was like going home again, as she had led the Lady Bulldogs to the 1999 Final Four and the 2000 SEC championship as a sweet-shooting 6'4" center. On this particular afternoon Angie was watching her former teammates play in a coed pickup game at the student union. At some point, cast on her leg, she limped over to an adjacent court to shoot free throws. One of the guys in the neighboring game tried to save an errant pass and banged into Angie, knocking her to the ground. All of the onlookers were horrified until Angie started laughing. Then everybody cracked up, no one harder than the "dorky white guy" decked out in black hightops, white knee-high socks, pleated khaki shorts and a polo shirt. All she could say to him was, "If you're going to laugh at me, I need to know who you are."

It has become part of golf lore that Watson wasn't a very good college player, but in fact he earned second-team All-SEC honors as a junior in 2000. "Bubba was really confident, almost cocky about his golf and where he was going," Angie says. "Quite honestly, that was one of things that attracted me at the time." She also enjoyed his goofy sense of humor and the tender side he wasn't afraid to show. On one of their first dates they had a long talk about family and faith. Angie confided to Bubba that she would be unable to have children, but he didn't blink, saying that was a matter for a higher power.

Once her knee was healthy, Angie signed with the Italian team Vicenza and moved to Venice. She and Bubba broke up for a few months but then reunited, and he came for a monthlong visit. Intimidated by the language barrier, he rarely left the apartment.

After a season abroad Angie signed with the Cleveland Rockers, but she was beset by more injuries. She retired after a third shoulder surgery. Angie had a few regrets—a native of Pickering, Ont., she was knocked off Canada's 2000 Olympic team by a torn labrum—but now looks back at her compromised career as a time of tremendous personal growth. "I questioned my faith while I was going through the injuries," she says. "But I know now that time made me much stronger and more independent and deepened my relationship with God. His timing was perfect—if I had been healthy and continued playing, I never would have met Bubba."

Eventually Angie joined him as he apprenticed on various mini-tours. They were a very tight unit. "She's always been everything to me," he says. "My rock, my best friend, my biggest critic. She's the person I want to spend all my time with. And she helped me get closer to the Lord." They were married in September 2004 and baptized three months later.

Bubba arrived on the PGA Tour in 2006 as a free-swinging enigma, a talent who seemed too high-strung to handle the pressures of golf at the elite level. Angie admits she was part of the problem. "I was living through him, so I was obsessed with his golf," she says. "I was that naggy wife, saying, 'You didn't putt good today so you need to go practice for two hours.' It added a lot of stress to both of our lives."

"He wouldn't be where he is without Angie," says Scott. "Not even close."

Aaron Baddeley's wife, Richelle, became a mentor, reminding Angie that she didn't marry Bubba because of golf. Mrs. Watson came to care more about her hubby's comportment than his performance. She would brook no displays of anger on the course and enacted a zero-tolerance policy for showing impatience with fans and tournament volunteers. "She's very stern," Bubba says with a laugh. "She lets me know about my mistakes, that's for sure. I need that, and I appreciate that."

Angie says their last heavy-duty heart-to-heart came at the end of 2012. Bubba was overwhelmed by the expectations that came with being a Masters champion and by the responsibilities of being a new father. She told him, "You've always said golf would be so much easier for you when you didn't have to worry about your playing status and you had financial security to take care of your family. Well, guess what? You have all of that now, but the game seems a lot harder for you. If you're not having fun, what's the point?" In Bubba's mind, that was the day he began his journey to another green jacket.

No one has spent more time around the Watsons than Ted Scott, who says flatly, "He wouldn't be where he is without Angie. Not even close.... She's so grounded, and Bubba is so flighty. She's like the hand holding the string, and he's the helium balloon trying to fly away. But it's like she's saying to him, 'I've got you, I've got you tied around my finger, and I won't let you go.' It frees him up to be who he is."

The 15th event that Scott worked for Watson was the 2007 Houston Open. Bubba went on a birdie binge on Saturday and held the lead on the 14th tee, a par-3 that was playing 198 yards to the hole, 204 to the back edge. Back then Watson hit a stock 7-iron about 195 yards, so factoring in the adrenaline of the situation, Scott suggested taking one less club. "You can't hit an 8 over the green," he said. Watson gave him a funny look but accepted the advice.

"Right at impact," Scott recalls, "I mean before he's even in his follow-through, Bubba says to me, 'Don't ever tell me I can't hit an 8-iron 204 yards.'" Sure enough, his ball landed on the back of the green and hopped into the rough. At that moment winning his first PGA Tour event was a trifling concern; proving a point to his caddie was all that mattered. Scott's internal reaction? "Wow. Double wow." He had two questions: "How do you do that? I mean, who can hit an 8-iron 205 yards? And secondly, why would you do that [on purpose]?" These questions have defined their complicated relationship ever since.

At times, every caddie has to act as a shrink. Scott is more like a minesweeper. Or maybe a lion tamer. Over the last eight years it has become clear that he is uniquely suited for the job. "Teddy and Bubba are like brothers," says Angie. "They are so much alike. He gets what makes Bubba tick even more than I do. Sometimes I think he knows Bubba's thoughts even before Bubba does."

Scott, 40, is certainly as quirky as his boss. He grew up in Lafayette, La., and was a good enough golfer to compete for McNeese State and then be invited to walk on at Louisiana-Lafayette. But he gave up college golf cold turkey to play competitive Foosball. He and his partner, Terry Rue, barnstormed around the country, competing in tournaments and hustling unsuspecting locals. "We'd buy ourselves in the Calcutta for $5 when the top pro teams were going for $1,300," Rue says. The two might pocket $3,000 in the Calcutta and another $1,000 for winning the tournament. In 1994, Scott and Rue won the world championships, and Scott took second in singles.

Scott has tremendous hand-eye coordination, but Rue says that's not what made him so good. "He was a master of the mental side of things: reading people, understanding the moment, knowing what to say and when to say it. He could've been a psychologist."

Scott drifted back to golf, and around 2000 a friend and Lafayette businessman named Brian Miller staked him to play on the Tight Lies micro-mini-tour, despite the advice of friends. Says Miller, "They said, 'Have you seen this guy on the course? He flips out. He loses it.' But I saw the talent and felt like he needed to take a shot at it."

"Teddy and Bubba are like brothers," says Angie. "He gets what makes Bubba tick more than I do."

Scott was paralyzed by his pursuit of technical perfection in his swing. His volcanic temper didn't help, and he missed five of six cuts. Seeking to learn new ways to improve, he signed up for a one-week lark as a caddie when the Nationwide tour came to his home course, Le Triomphe. He was lucky to catch on with Grant Waite, who had conditional status on the PGA Tour but was playing on the Nationwide to stay sharp. Scott knew so little about caddying that he showed up on the 1st tee without a yardage book. Waite fished out $20 and sent his looper to the pro shop to buy one. Things got a little better from there, and at tournament's end Waite offered Scott the job for the rest of the year. "He was a really fast learner, and he had a good, positive energy," says Waite.

For the next two years Scott alternated between caddying and playing competitively. The only thing he could commit to was Miller's sister Melanie. They were married in 2003. Scott was considering giving up golf and going into business with his new brother-in-law when Paul Azinger rang in the spring of '03. The 12-time Tour winner needed a caddie but was more interested in getting Foosball lessons. "I was obsessed with Foos," says Azinger. He and Scott would often spend their nights competing in tournaments. "We'd be out till two in the morning and then have to get up early to tee off," says Azinger. "I'm sure it was hurting my golf, but I didn't care—we were having too much fun."

In May 2006, Azinger told Scott he was burned out and urged him to find another bag. Ben Crane was a friend of Scott's and Watson's through the Tour's Bible study, and he played matchmaker, knowing that Bubba was looking to upgrade from the boyhood friend he'd used as a rookie. From their first round together Scott was dazzled by Watson's gifts, but he also recognized the challenges. "In the practice rounds he'd play so good and have so much fun, and it was like, Wow, what a talent," says Scott. "Then the tournament starts, and you have a person eating a bag of chips while he's standing over the ball or a marshal moving at the wrong time, and it's so distracting to Bubba. He's almost like a secret agent in that he knows how many people are in the room and what kind of shoes they're wearing. He sees things before they happen. He didn't know how to block it out. Because of that, and knowing his own ability, he got very frustrated and very emotional, and that's where the anger came from."

Watson has taken some flak through the years for his sniping at Scott, including a much-publicized blowup last year at Hartford. Scott accepts the venting as part of the job; Melanie has been a mellowing influence, as has their shared faith and the broader perspective that has come from having two young kids. But in recent years Scott has had a series of tough conversations with his boss, bluntly laying out the changes he needed to make to realize his potential.

"When Teddy has sat me down and said we need to work on things, I thought that's taken a lot of guts and a lot of character," says Watson.

It helps that the respect he has for his caddie transcends golf. "Me and Ted have learned so much together," Watson says. "We throw ideas at each other all the time. We talk about what's going on in our lives, our families. We help each other, we pray for each other. I told him a long time ago, I'm not going to fire him. I'm going to hit bad shots, I'm going to make mistakes—we're just going to go through it together."

Even with such job security, Scott dreams of playing; last week he tried to Monday-qualify in New Orleans. He shot a respectable 71 but would have needed a 66 to join a playoff for the final spot. His old benefactor Miller appreciates Scott's enthusiasm but says, "Ted was put on this earth to caddie for Bubba. Together they're having more success than either of them could have individually, and that's given both a platform to share with the world what they believe in."

On the eve of Bubba's return to Bagdad, Scott was the featured guest at the praise-and-worship night of the Kinder (La.) Bible Church. Some 200 folks turned out; church elder Craig Whittington called it a record crowd, saying, "In this town Ted has celebrity status." Scott was funny and moving in talking about his life. The Q-and-A turned out to be as much about golf as scripture, and he offered one provocative thought: "Eight and a half years later I'm still in awe of the stuff [Watson] can do. His record might not say he's the best player in the world, but I believe nobody can hold a candle to the talent that Bubba has. As far as a physical gift, there's no question in my mind he's the best there is. But there's a lot of other things that determine winning."

One of the biggest factors is the people around you. It is Watson's great fortune that he has the perfect wife and wingman on his team. "They've taught me how to be a man and accept responsibility," he says. "I might not be that smart, but I know if both of them are telling me the same thing, then it must be right." As his stature in the game continues to grow, Watson will need to lean on his wife and caddie even more.

"I don't know where we go from here," Watson says. "We're going to find out. Together."

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