Pride of the Panhandle

Pride of the Panhandle

In contention all week Watson finished T5, while Weekley (foreground) came in T26.
Simon Bruty/SI

The gents who run the USGA aren’t noted for their humor, unless you think foot-high hay three steps off the fairway is a hoot. But once a year, when they meet in secret to make up the groups for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open, they sneak in some sly wit as they perform their matchmaker services. The funny one this year was the Thursday 7:11 a.m. 10th tee group: country boys Bubba Watson and Boo Weekley, accompanied by Nobuhiro Masuda of Japan, who was on his first trip to the U.S. After two rounds and nearly 12 hours together, Masuda concluded that Japan did not produce men like Bubba and Boo. His interpreter stood beside him, nodding sympathetically.

There were times when a translator was also needed for Bubba and Boo, who grew up in little towns on the outskirts of Pensacola on the Florida Panhandle. When Boo said he was “renting in a motel” for his week at Oakmont, that meant he was staying in a convention-center Westin, with the plush beds, in downtown Pittsburgh. When he noted that he saw “all kinds of different people” on the streets of Pittsburgh, that meant he saw a gay couple arm in arm. Weekley couldn’t be nicer — but he makes Scott Hoch look worldly. Then there was this Yogi-like gem from Bubba, talking about playing with Boo: “Me and him, we’re having the same pressures. He’s thinking the same thing I’m thinking.”

A reporter asked, “Which is what?”

“I don’t know,” Bubba said. “That’s what we’re trying to figure out.”

Actually, though, as a cultural and regional stereotype, Bubba’s a failure. He’d rather play video games than hunt or fish, and he doesn’t chew. He has the Oliver North buzz cut but also a pink-shafted driver with a pink, knitted head cover. Cute.

Meantime, Boo and his caddie, Joe Pyland — from “back the house,” Weekley said, meaning they grew up together — dipped all the way through the interminable opening rounds. Whether that nicotine drip makes the round go faster or slower is hard to know, but young Masuda, 34 and impressionable, found it interesting. On every tee and fairway, a little stream of brownish spittle would shoot out of the mouths of Boo and his bagman and settle on Oakmont’s lush green grass.

“I had never seen anybody chew tobacco before,” Masuda said. “It didn’t bother me, but I heard spectators say, ‘That’s disgusting.’ ”

Boo and Bubba aren’t close friends. They don’t hang out together at home or on the road. “Don’t even have him in my cellphone,” Boo says. They’re buddies, though, and each knows where the other comes from and the road each took to get where he is. Last week at Oakmont was Weekley’s first major championship, and the U.S. Open was the first time the two had played together in a Tour event. (Thanks, group-making USGA guys!) There wasn’t much chitchat between them, and the only person Nobu talked to at all was his Japanese caddie, Yoshi Kazv, who wore bright white pants with the word tiger stenciled in large red letters down his left leg. (It’s a Japanese entertainment company.) What Bubba and Boo had between them was comfort.

Bubba can be a goofball prankster in his off-course life. He described the practice rounds he has played with Tiger Woods. “I blast it by him every time,” Watson said. “He talks about his wins. I talk about how far I hit it.” But last week Bubba was nobody’s fool. Waiting for the group’s Friday 12:41 tee time, he took a page out of Tiger’s book, making a study of the course conditions by viewing the tournament telecast. On the course he keenly watched the shots played by the golfers ahead of and behind him, and he had his caddie, Ted Scott, forecaddie on certain holes because the rough was like a black hole and he knew the volunteer spotters might struggle to find his tee shots, which follow no normal pattern in height, distance or direction.

Playing in only the second major of his career, Bubba, who has no swing coach or trainer or sports psychologist, was a shot off the lead after 36 holes. He was still in great position to win the championship through eight holes on Saturday, but then he made a triple on 9, where he chipped not once, not twice but three times. “I had two horrible lies,” he said of his first two chips, one flubbed, the other rushed and skulled. He didn’t sound anything like defeated, but the math was working against him and he wound up tying for fifth.

Bubba is five years younger than the 33-year-old Boo — and a lefthander with slender arms and bony hands that do not touch barbells. His prodigious length comes from the enormous extension in his swing. He has broad shoulders and long arms, which create an exceptionally wide arc. His downswing has more time than normal to build up speed, and the result is stunning. Swinging all out, which he seldom does, Watson can easily hit a ball 330 yards on the fly. On Friday at 17, a 313-yard par-4, he hit a little cut driver nearly hole-high. On the next hole, 484 yards and uphill, his drive, smack down the middle, left him with 100 yards to the flag.

Watson doesn’t like to draw the ball, so right hole positions are difficult for him. Strong winds are also a problem because he hits the ball so high. Another issue for him is how to handle the reins. On Thursday he played the uphill, 477-yard 9th hole with a four-iron off the tee and a five-iron in. The next day he hit driver followed by a wedge. Both days he made bogey. But his toughest challenge is patience, a topic he discusses on the course with his caddie and off the course with his wife, Angie, a former pro basketball player whom he met in college, at Georgia. “I have no patience, and I hate waiting,” Watson said, which made his 36-hole position even more surprising, given that the opening rounds each took close to six hours.

Having Boo around helped. Putting his peg in the ground after a long wait on a back-nine tee box, Weekley said, “Play well,” as if the round were starting all over again. Bubba, unshaven and loose, laughed.

It’s easy to imagine Bubba Watson winning at Augusta, where his massive fade shot would play like a righthander’s draw and make all the par-5s easily reachable. Bubba is
now ranked 77th in the world, and he may get to Augusta for the first time next
year. Boo Weekley, courtesy of his win at Hilton Head in April, is already in the 2008 Masters. At Oakmont, where he finished 26th, he was the player in the threesome with a classic U.S. Open game — or British Open game, for that matter. Weekley plays a lot like Scott Verplank, except he’s longer with every club and not as deadly from 10 feet. His shots are low and straight, and there’s no reason that he shouldn’t contend at Carnoustie next month.

Another son of the South, Sam Snead, won the Open on his first trip to St. Andrews, when he came in by train, looked at the links and said, “What’s that over there? Looks like an old, abandoned golf course.” Boo said last week, “I don’t like wearing golf shoes, and I don’t like wearing collared shirts.” If he gets in contention, the working-class Scots — the world’s best golf fans — will love him.

Masuda liked Boo’s game. He could relate to it. But Bubba’s game left him in a trance. “No Japanese golfer has ever hit the ball like that,” Masuda said when the first two rounds were over. “It makes me want to go home and not come back until I improve.”

He was laughing as he talked, almost as if he had the giggles. He seemed happy to be done, happy to be part of a USGA social experiment. You might have thought he’d be upset because he had just made a triple bogey on his last hole on Friday, with a drive in the rough that finished at least 100 yards behind Bubba’s ball. All he had needed was a par on the last to make the cut on the number, 10 over par. Anyway, if he was frustrated, he didn’t show it. Maybe it’s a Japanese thing.