Bubba Watson is a two-time Masters champion and one of the most popular golfers on the PGA Tour. His backstory has become the stuff of legend: born and raised in the Florida Panhandle, no formal golf lessons, a renowned ability to hit some of the most inimitable shots ever seen on a golf course.
A casual fan may see Watson curve a ball on a crazy trajectory and think it came out of nowhere. In truth, those shots were honed over years of practice. Watson’s passion for golf can be traced like a road map, the journey cutting through the state of Florida, sneaking across the border to Alabama and then winding through Georgia. And it all starts in a backyard in Bagdad, Fla., in 1984.
“At six years old,” says Watson from his home outside Orlando, “I had a nine-iron that my dad cut down. He bought me plastic golf balls, and I hit them around the house. I mean, it was till dark. I’d get home from school and I’d hit around my yard all day and all night. I had the porch light on, I had flashlights; I played golf many times in the dark. My mom would yell at me, saying, ‘Come in, you have to eat dinner! You gotta do your homework!’”
Watson’s childhood home in Bagdad doubled as his first real course, with the front nine sitting in the backyard. Watson never hesitated to play indoors, either.
“I hit plastic balls inside my house for sure,” he says, “And then when I got better around 12 or 13, I hit real balls in my house, chipping with a lob wedge.”
Real balls inside the house? Isn’t that a recipe for a broken window?
“No,” he says slyly. “I’m good. My mom will tell you, I never broke a window.”
Watson played both baseball and golf as a young child but became more golf-obsessed as he grew, partly because he could play by himself. The creativity Watson developed while curving whiffle balls around vases in his home opened a lot of eyes once he got out on the local course, Tanglewood Golf Club, at the tender age of 10. His mother would drop him there daily on the way home from school.
“Every afternoon I would jump in with a group, then I started playing nine holes by myself,” he says. “As I got older, guys knew I was good, so groups of older men would ask me to play golf with them, wanting me to be on their team so they could beat another team. I just made friends through golf. Golf is the one sport that it doesn’t matter what age you are. If you’re good at it, they’ll let you play. If you’re 80 and you can shoot good scores, they’ll let you on their team. If you’re me at age 12, they’re like ‘Hey, you can be on my team if you’re going to play good!’”
When Watson says he played it every afternoon, he isn’t exaggerating. By his own estimation, he has played Tanglewood thousands of times. Even as a PGA professional, Watson tries to play the course at least once a year. He played it in 2014 after winning his second Masters tournament.
“It’s a fun place,” he says. “I’ll always check in on it financially, making sure whoever owns it is taking care of it. And when I say taking care of it, I mean making sure it never goes away from being a golf course, because that’s my home. That’s where I learned to play golf, so I would never want it to go under or anything like that.”
After graduating from high school, Watson entertained the idea of turning pro, but his parents encouraged him to go to college first. He enrolled at Faulkner State Community College, an Alabama school that was the closest Watson could find near his home in Pensacola. He spent his first year commuting three days a week, playing golf for the Faulkner State team.
Watson actually had to qualify for the team, despite his protestations. “I was like, ‘Coach, do I REALLY have to qualify?’” he recalls. “And he said yes. So I said I’d do one qualifying day. I shot a 68, and the rest of the team averaged a 78. I said, ‘Coach, I don’t need to qualify anymore.’”
After two years at Faulkner State, Watson moved on to the University of Georgia, in Athens. As special as Florida is to Watson, the state of Georgia is a close second. Watson’s father was raised partly in Athens, and Watson met his wife, Angie, while enrolled there. “There’s a lot of things about the state of Georgia have created a lot of memories for me and my wife,” says Watson. “We got married in Georgia. When you add it all up, I should live there, I guess!”
At Georgia, Watson practiced with the team at the course on campus and played local courses around town, but the real advantage to being on the school golf team was the annual trip down to Augusta, where Bulldog golfers could play Augusta National. As part of the ritual, each team member would pick out a brand new golf outfit, iron his shirt and pants to perfection and board the team van for the two-hour trek to golf nirvana.
“The seniors at Georgia, they told me, ‘Hey, when you get there, you’re gonna pull your camera out and you’re going to start taking pictures of everything,’” Watson says. “I was like, ‘Man, it’s just a golf course. It can’t be that big of a deal.’
“But as soon as you hit Mangolia Lane and the guard shack is right there and they let you in, you take your camera out so fast! I was in awe of the place. It was crazy. They were telling the truth.”
Watson got to play at Augusta twice during his college career, shooting a 72 both times. “I can remember every shot that I hit,” he says of his first two rounds as a college kid. “And then finally getting into The Masters. My dad got to watch me play there one time. [Watson’s father died in 2010.] I have tons of memories of that place.”
Watson’s two Masters wins have cemented his status as one of the world’s best golfers. But his passion for the sport means he wants to play every day, with anyone who has a love for the game and a free afternoon. At his home in the exclusive Isleworth golf community in Florida, he doesn’t have to look far.
“The cart boys at the course at Isleworth,” he says, “Kids just out of college in their 20s, they want to play golf. So when they get off work around 1 p.m., we go play. And it inspires me so much more. When I look at those kids and their energy, it inspires me. Just like in Pensacola, when I go talk to young kids, and I see their passion and the smiles on their faces when they hit good shots. That’s where I used to be. Sometimes you have to get back to that, get back to the roots to remember that it’s just a game, and what this game means to you – not about the championships, the money, the fame, all these different things.
“It should be about you and that sport, and how you fell in love with it in the first place.”