Bubba Watson is that rare Tour star who packs a punch on the course but drops his gloves off it

Bubba Watson is that rare Tour star who packs a punch on the course but drops his gloves off it

Bubba Watson has three career PGA Tour wins, including one earlier this year in New Orleans.
Carlos M. Saavedra/SI

Bubba Watson wants to win majors and cash big checks and play in more Ryder Cups, but if it doesn’t happen, well, c’est la vie. “I don’t let stuff worry me,” says Watson, who has climbed to 12th in the world rankings with an enviable combination of power and finesse. “Golf is a job. It’s not my life.” Don’t be fooled. The left-hander hasn’t always been so carefree. Working his way up the ranks from his native Bagdad, Fla., Watson used to beat himself up, cursing and scowling and brooding when things didn’t go well. Then, in 2009, his father, Gerry, was diagnosed with cancer, and soon after so was Bubba’s wife, Angie (she later learned that she had been misdiagnosed). Golf suddenly seemed insignificant to Watson, which ironically made him a better player. Not obsessing over every mis-hit and lip-out, he says, freed up his mind and his game. He won his first PGA Tour title in 2010, and nearly his first major. A year later he’s backed that up with two more victories and is a lock for the Presidents Cup team. “Every year I’ve gotten better on Tour,” Watson says. “And just like any amateur, my aim is still to get better.”

In 2010 you faced tragedy off the course while reaching some important goals on the course. What did you take away from that season?
I think everything happens for a reason in life. My worst year off the course turns out to be my best year on the course. My dad was diagnosed with throat cancer in November 2009. We thought my wife, Angie, had a brain tumor, but we found out it was misdiagnosed. What I believe is that to get my dad and my family through it, it was important [for them] to see me on TV a lot and playing good golf.

Your father died in October, nine days after you returned from the Ryder Cup. How were your last days with him?
It was great. We spent a lot of time sitting on the front porch. The doctor told us that he was going to have days where he wasn’t going to do anything. But he never had those days. So we never felt like his death was coming. I mean we knew it was coming but he never stopped moving. He always wanted to go and do something. An hour before he passed, he met with the plumber.

With your dad in your thoughts, how difficult was it to concentrate in those matches?
It was harder than I could ever have imagined. Every night I would call the house to talk to my parents to see how they were doing. That was my dad’s Ryder Cup. He wanted to make sure that he was alive for it. He went to the doctor every day to get an IV so that he could stay hydrated enough to stay up to watch the matches. He kept telling the nurses that his goal was to just make it through the Ryder Cup. I didn’t play as good as I wanted to, but obviously I had more important things on my mind.

After you earned your first career win at Hartford in June 2010, you said that winning wouldn’t change your life and that golf wasn’t the most important thing to you. Do you still feel that way?
Golf is the way I make a living. If I retired from the game today I would still play golf every day with my buddies. If I had been wealthy I never would have turned pro. I would have been like Bobby Jones and just tried to be the best amateur and try to go to the Masters by winning the U.S. Amateur. So winning a golf tournament doesn’t change me as a person. I’m still going to be goofy Bubba from Bagdad, Fla.

You came awfully close to winning your first major at the PGA last year. Did losing in a playoff to Martin Kaymer gnaw at you?
Not at all. My biggest goal last year, outside of winning an event, was making the Ryder Cup. My main goal each year is to get into the team event. I don’t let bad rounds or bad tournaments gnaw at me.

You and Kaymer were tied on the third playoff hole when your drive came to rest in a bad lie in the right rough on 18, a par 5. Kaymer’s ball was nestled just in front of yours in another difficult lie. Why did you go for the green?
I was trying to win the tournament. I didn’t know how it was going to come out of that lie. There was no way to predict how it was going to come out of that rough. So I thought it was going to do one thing and it came up way short. If you look back at the video, I didn’t know where my ball finished. I didn’t think there was any way that it was that far short in the [creek]. I thought it was short in the bunker.

It must have been tough for your regular caddie, Teddy Scott, to not be with you that week. He took off to be home for the birth of his child.
Teddy is best friends with Mark Carens, who stepped in to caddie for me that week. Mark was having some tough financial times. So we wanted to help him. Some people have caddie shares that call for the full-time caddie to get some money regardless of whether he works or not. But we didn’t do that. All the money went straight to Mark and his family. So the whole PGA experience was a lot deeper than most people know.

Are you surprised with how your game has matured over the last two years?
Not really. I was working on a few things with my putting. The game of golf is so messed up that you could hit the ball great and not win and then hit the ball bad and win. It’s the putter. If you’re rolling it well, you’re going to win out here. We’re always trying to get better from six feet and in. When I can make those I know that I’m going to have a great week and a great year.

At this year’s Masters you started the final round five shots off the lead, but closed with a 78. What happened?
I knew that a big week would probably get me in the top 10. I was thinking too much about climbing the world ranking and not enough about golf.

You don’t have a swing instructor and you’ve never taken a formal lesson. How much do you practice?
In the winter I play golf almost every day. On Sundays I go to church and hit balls afterward and take off on Monday. From Tuesday through Saturday I play with the boys at the Estancia Club in Scottsdale, where I’m a member. Sometimes I’ll play against the best ball of three players. I start out in these matches taking it easy for the first three holes, but eventually I start grinding if the match is close.

As one of the game’s biggest hitters, do you believe the distance craze is good for the game?
I don’t think we should be lengthening courses. I’m the long hitter so it doesn’t bother me. It’s to my advantage. But I think the golf industry is going the wrong way. We’re the only ones changing our sport. No one else is changing their game so much with technology. Basketball isn’t going to 12-foot rims because the guys can jump higher. Golf is supposed to be providing a great atmosphere for the amateurs and the weekend golfers. We should want to grow the game for the people. Why would anyone want to play an 8,000-yard golf course?

Do you look at driving statistics?
I know I had the driving distance title for the first few years on Tour and I’ve lost it the last few, but otherwise I haven’t really paid much attention to it. I would rather win golf tournaments and be the shortest hitter in the world than be the longest hitter and not win.

If the longest hitters on the PGA Tour had a driving contest, who would win?
If we were just on a big open field I would put my money on J.B. Holmes. I think, though, that if Alvaro Quiros was on our tour he’d be the longest. Dustin Johnson is the longest into the wind because like Quiros he hits a low bullet, whereas J.B. and I fly it a long way in the air.

What’s your best long-drive tip?
Since I’m not a big muscle man, I’ve really concentrated on creating a big arc. The bigger the arc the greater the clubhead speed, no matter how fast you’re swinging.

On YouTube there are dozens of videos of you hitting various trick shots using fruit and persimmon clubs. What’s that all about?

It’s like Jackass for golfers, without the injuries. It’s the same concept but nicer and cleaner. I’ve done about 60 movies so far.

What’s the hardest trick shot you do?
Hitting a bunker shot with a driver. I tee it up a little bit in the bunker but you still have to get up over the lip.

You have about 130,000 Twitter followers. Have you gotten to know any of them personally?
There was one guy who played college golf from Chicago and I could tell from the things that he was saying in his tweets that he really knew about golf. So when he came down to the Phoenix Open I met him and gave him tickets. Once I met him I invited him to come out and play golf with my caddie and I at Estancia. So now we play Xbox online and we’ve become friends.

Do your Twitter followers ever alert you when they’re in the gallery?
At last year’s British Open there was a Scottish woman in the gallery who had won a contest for one of my drivers. While I was there she wanted to know how she could get in touch with me to thank me. So I gave her a special word to say to let me know that she was in the gallery. I do this all the time with people.

What kind of code words do you use?
It’s not any words that you would ever hear at a golf tournament. And they are never the same from person to person.

At the 2008 Zurich Classic of New Orleans you cursed out Steve Elkington for repeatedly moving while you were hitting. How is your relationship today?
The way I handled myself with that was wrong. I’m not embarrassed that it happened because you learn from mistakes. I got my point across to him. We made up and since then I’ve met his wife and we’re friends.

Is etiquette generally good on Tour?
The way I feel about etiquette is that if I’m shooting 100 and I’m going to miss the cut, I’m going to play as fast as I can to not get in the way of a player who still has a chance. But the hard thing about etiquette is that sometimes you’re so focused on what you’re doing that you forget there’s another player in the group. So sometimes you might disrespect a player and not intend to.

You’ve acknowledged that you’re a bit of a “head case.” Have you seen a sports psychologist?
I approached Ben Crane as a fellow Christian and Tour pro about who was the best psychologist to help me. He told me that the best help would be the Bible because it was going to show me that golf doesn’t mean anything and that there were bigger things in life, like doing good for others.

Do you struggle with being a good person?
I have my biggest downfalls on the golf course. I’ll use bad language every once in a while. I don’t mind saying that I cuss on the course because you need to be able to talk about your issues. I’m not happy about it and then I’m mad at myself for not being mad at myself when I mess up. So then I’m just fighting myself. So I’m trying to get better on the course. To help me mentally I had to realize that it’s just a game and that I should be having fun.