Pretty much anyone who was paying attention saw Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods coming, so it was easy to predict they were headed for important things like U.S. Open trophies and Masters jackets, and untold wealth and fame.
The same cannot be said for Bubba Watson, who will try to defend his title at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans this week, his first Tour start since he won the Masters. We didn’t see him coming until he arrived, about three weeks ago. There are a few big reasons for this, the biggest of which is not his wild-and-crazy swing, but his wild-and-crazy wiring. “I’ve got a lot of issues,” Watson said while winning the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines last year. No kidding.
While he now has four official Tour wins and is ranked fourth in the world, Watson’s skittishness was apparent early, and it was why many people steered away from him. At the 2005 Albertsons Boise Open, in what would be his last year on the Nationwide tour, Watson blasted a drive into the left trees on the 523-yard, par-5 second hole, which plays as the 11th hole for members. A few fans were in the way, and Watson made little attempt to hide his aggravation. “Do you mind?” he said, clearly exasperated. “I’m trying to make a living here.”
He hit his second shot through a hole in the trees that was about the diameter of a hula-hoop, and moments later his ball dropped next to the pin as if by magic.
Others in the Zurich field this week include second-ranked Luke Donald, Steve Stricker, Webb Simpson and Justin Rose, but it’s Watson everyone will be watching. He has always had the shots, but harnessing his drive and creativity was no small task. It turned out to be a team effort -- hold the swing coach or sports psychologist -- starting with his wife, the former Georgia basketball player Angie Ball. If Watson is like Mickelson (long, left-handed, staggeringly creative) then it must be said that Angie is like Amy Mickelson. It was the calm, unfailingly kind Angie whom many looked to when they got a bad first read on Bubba, and they couldn’t stay sour on him after that. How could he be a cad if he had such a kind wife?
Ted Scott, Watson’s caddie, also has been influential. It was after Watson failed to qualify for the 2010 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and threw a fit in the process, that Scott issued an ultimatum: chill out or find a new caddie.
“I was living the wrong way,” Watson said at the Masters. “Every golf shot was controlling how mad I got, how I was on the golf course.”
Scott, a former champion foosball player who caddied for Paul Azinger before Watson, has made other shrewd moves. “It’s just me and you out here,” he told Watson after Bubba had bogeyed the par-3 16th hole in the third round at Torrey last year. Watson finished birdie-eagle to set up his victory the next day.
At Augusta, as Scott and Watson ventured into the trees on the 10th hole, the second hole of Watson’s sudden-death playoff with Louis Oosthuizen, Scott reminded Watson of something he’d said when the two first worked together in Boston, six years earlier: “If I have a swing, I’ve got a shot.” Watson found his gap in the trees, and, just as he always has, piloted his ball through unscathed.
Other members of the Bubba support group include trainer Andrew Fisher (Watson has lost 30 pounds since coming out on Tour in ’06); his level-headed agent, Jens Beck; and pals Rickie Fowler, Ben Crane, Aaron Baddeley and others. They’ve all helped Watson deny his self-destructive impulses while allowing Bubba to be Bubba. He waged a successful Twitter campaign to appear on Ellen DeGeneres’s talk show, bought the original General Lee -- used in the Dukes of Hazzard TV series -- and breaks down crying after every win. He tears up at the mention of his new son, Caleb, whom Bubba and Angie adopted last month.
“I've actually changed diapers now,” Watson said in his lengthy press conference in New Orleans on Tuesday. “Not that I have a count, but it's only five I've changed, and they've been easy to change.” (Several questions later he added that as per an agreement with Angie, he only changes “pee-pee diapers.”)
Some of Watson’s perspective can be traced to the death of his father, Gerry, a Vietnam veteran who was bedridden with throat cancer as Bubba played in the 2010 Ryder Cup, his first. The only instructor Bubba ever had, Gerry succumbed less than two weeks after Europe edged the U.S. at Celtic Manor. The loss gave new meaning and urgency to Bubba and Angie’s long, winding adoption process.
Watson, who withdrew from next week’s Wells Fargo Championship to be with his family, still loses his cool. At the 2010 PGA at Whistling Straits, where he would lose a three-hole playoff to Martin Kaymer, Watson threw a minor fit after hitting his tee shot into a bunker in regulation. A few fans had clapped, unaware that the ball had trickled into trouble, and Watson muttered audibly that they should wait until he hits a good shot to clap. But no one changes overnight.
With help from his team, Watson is winning the inner battle. He’s mellowed enough for his scores to be an expression of his talent. He resembles not so much the anger-management candidate who didn’t win a tournament at Georgia or on the Nationwide, but the phenom who had five wins at Faulkner Community College.
He’s still a goofball. Father, husband, born-again Christian -- he will always be the kid who knocked plastic golf balls around his house and shot 62 at age 12. He’s still never had a lesson. He believes he has ADHD, but hasn’t had it officially diagnosed, nor has he turned himself over to doctors for treatment. His honesty and approachability served him well on a whirlwind media tour of New York. Asked by David Letterman to describe his game, Watson said, “Awesome.”
“I haven't read any articles,” he said Tuesday, alluding to his post-Masters popularity. “I saw my shows, because I'm awesome so I had to see those.”
Awesome is more than a 40-yard hook out of the trees. Those all-white, Travis Mathew outfits he wore at the Masters? They were auctioned off for charity, part of Watson’s “Drive to a Million” campaign. Ditto for the 5,000 Bubba-pink drivers Ping is selling. Watson said Tuesday he’s launching “Bubba Bash,” a concert to raise money for a medical center in Africa. So yes, he’s awesome, and maybe he always was, but with fewer rough edges, the word is getting out.
Jason Dufner, who is still looking for his first Tour win, shot a final-round 66 to finish T3 at the Zurich Classic at TPC Louisiana last year. He was T7 in 2010, and T9 in ’09. … John Huh and Brandt Snedeker withdrew from the Zurich, as did Boo Weekley, for medical reasons. Weekley’s spot was given to John Daly. … The Nationwide tour resumes this week with the South Georgia Classic at 7,781-yard Kinderlou Forest Golf Club, the longest course on the PGA or Nationwide tours this year. … Andres Gonzales leads the Nationwide money list with $195,810, or a little more than what Hunter Haas, Ryan Moore and Cameron Tringale received for finishing T8 at last week’s Valero Texas Open on the PGA Tour. … Ian Poulter, who is coming off a career-best seventh-place finish at the Masters, and who won in Hong Kong in 2010 and Singapore in ’09, will be among the favorites at the European tour’s Ballantine’s Championship at Blackstone Golf Club near Seoul. Also in the field: Adam Scott, whose eight Euro tour wins include four in Asia. … Americans have won twice -- Jessica Korda in Australia on Feb. 12, and Angela Stanford in Singapore on Feb. 26 -- in seven LPGA tournaments this year. This week’s Mobile Bay (Ala.) LPGA Classic at RTJ Golf Trail will feature Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr, Christina Kim and Lexi Thompson. … The Champions tour, where Michael Allen has won the last two weeks, is dark.
Correction: An earlier version of this article listed Angela Stanford as the only American to win on the LPGA in 2012. Jessica Korda won the women's Australian Open in February.