AUGUSTA, Ga. – The Masters was over before it ended, and the proof was on the 17th fairway, where Angie Watson faced a dilemma: follow her husband Bubba up No. 17, or head back to the clubhouse.
Bubba had built a three-stroke lead on 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. Strange things can happen at Augusta National, but Bubba had already drained the strange out of the proceedings. Angie apparently knew it. She walked straight to the clubhouse to pick up her 2-year-old son, Caleb, so he was ready to meet daddy on the 18th green.
Angie missed Bubba’s par on 17. She missed the tee shot on 18 that led caddie Ted Scott to ask him: “Are you from Mars or something?”
He often appears that way, but no. As Bubba likes to tell everybody, he is from Florida’s panhandle. But he belongs at Augusta National.
“This place,” fellow pro Rickie Fowler said, “happens to suit him quite well.”
What gave you that idea?
Was it the second Masters title in three years? Was it the tee shot on No. 8, which was so far past Spieth’s, it was hard to believe they were in the same twosome? Spieth hit three-wood to take the fairway bunkers out of play. Watson hit driver and easily blew it over the bunkers, with a drive up the hill that measured 328 yards.
Or was it the drive on the par-5 13th, a dogleg left? Watson left his ball in such a preposterous spot, on the left side of the fairway along the trees, that it appeared to get there by carrier pigeon. Fans on the other side of the fairway had no idea how it got there. Neither did his caddie.
“I’m standing back there by the tee box,” Scott said. “I have no idea where it went. We don’t do yardage on that hole. If it’s into the wind, he slices it. If it’s not, he hammers it. It’s Bubba Golf. He didn’t need me on that hole. I just stand there with the bag: ‘Yes, sir.’”
Watson didn’t really mean to cut it that close to the trees, but because of his ridiculous length, he got away with it. As Fowler said: “There’s no one else that can really play the way he does. It’s his own style, for sure.”
On 15, Watson hit a nothing-to-see-here six-iron that flew through a pair of trees and over water 196 yards away. Scott said Watson was just trying to land it in a greenside bunker. But Watson admitted: “You know me, I wanted to get it a little closer to the pin, and so I cut it a little bit without telling my caddie I was going to do that.”
Every year, golf swings seem more alike, the way that baseball swings seem more alike. Athletes have access to so much video, and coaches understand biomechanics so well. Sports seem more like science than art.
Bubba Golf is an art, unpredictable and often beautiful, practiced by a man who has never had a coach. Watson is what John Daly occasionally was (and should have been more often).
“Freak show,” Scott said.
And Fowler said: “I can’t shape a ball as much as he can. I mean, there’s no way around it. It’s just not possible for me to hit as big of a draw and as big of a cut as he can. I don’t have that same speed.”
Just as Bubba Golf is not for everyone, neither is Bubba himself. He does not seem interested in being the most popular golfer among fellow players. He snaps at his caddie for a missed read or poor club choice, and is lucky he has Scott. He probably would have worn through a lot of other caddies by now. He does not fit any mold in any way. But hey, a lot of guys would have run from a woman who said, on a first date, that she would never be able to have children. Bubba married Angie. You want Bubba, you get all of him.
Those who love him do so completely. Fowler began the day two strokes off the lead, hoping to win his first major. He shot one-over 73 instead, which made this one of the most disappointing days of his career -- and yet, he walked out of the clubhouse to stand by the 18th green with Watson’s family and friends as Bubba finished his victory.
“I think a lot of people misunderstand Bubba,” Scott says. “The more you get to know him, the more you care about him. He’s just different. A lot of times, people maybe take that the wrong way. I love that about Bubba. He is such a caring person.”
Two years ago, we were still getting used to Bubba Golf, and Bubba was still getting used to us. In 2012, he and Angie had just adopted Caleb. He struggled with everything after – media coverage, sponsor requests, fatherhood.
He won the 2012 Masters with one of those ridiculous banana-shaped shots Fowler could never hit -- a hook out of trouble and into history. At the victory ceremony, Bubba looked at a helicopter overhead as 2011 champion Charl Schwartzel was ready to present him with his green jacket. Schwartzel is a pilot. Watson wanted to ask him what kind of helicopter it was.
He has learned to deal with the attention, but he hasn’t really changed. As he prepared for his eagle putt on 13, a plane flew overhead. Watson looked up again.
Compared to Bubba, the rest of the leaderboard still seem like automatons. His game defies explanation. Scott says Watson once carried a slice around a tree 286 yards over water, just because he was going to miss the cut anyway and Scott had challenged him.
“Every single day that I play golf with him or watch him play golf, I’m like, ‘How do you do that?’” Scott asked.
Maybe even Bubba doesn’t fully understand Bubba Golf. But it sure works for him. As dusk fell on Augusta National, and the patrons had dispersed, the 2014 champion climbed into a golf cart to ride back to Butler Cabin. When Bubba arrived, he leaned over to kiss Caleb, then walked inside with Caleb and Angie. This place happens to suit all of them quite well.