The Sixth Sense: Bubba Watson is golf's ultimate feel player

The Sixth Sense: Bubba Watson is golf’s ultimate feel player

Bubba Watson, like John Daly, has the rare combination of power and extremely soft hands.
Eugene Tanner/Icon SMI

Your better golfers have always been feel players. Paul Azinger practices bunker shots with his ears. The clubhead through the sand makes a certain pa-toot sound that tells him when the length and depth of his divot is ideal. Al Geiberger, who in 1977 became the first Tour player to shoot 59, used to feel wind direction on his face. When the wind was balanced on both cheeks, he knew his nose was pointed into the wind. A human weather vane. Tom Watson reads greens through the spikes of his shoes, able to figure out slopes through some weird spike-to-brain impulse, unencumbered by actual words. Johnny Miller, in his 1973 prime, had eyes that could distinguish 163 yards from 165 and had different swings to accommodate those distances.

Such heightened sensitivity naturally shows up in the elite player's toolbox. Most Tour players will tell their manufacturer that they want a driver with eight degrees of loft, or seven or nine. A smaller group will distinguish by the half degree, asking their Tour reps for an 8.5 this or a 7.5 that. After 24 years, Jeff Maggert still drives the ball in play about as often as anybody, and he requires his driver loft to be precise to a quarter degree, swinging a 9.25 model. Which is why he does the bending and the measuring himself. He's one of the few players left who regularly puts his clubs in a vise.

Years ago, when the putting genius Brad Faxon first went to Scotty Cameron to have a putter made, he was unsatisfied until a vertical slit along the length of the putter's bottom was cut into his prototypes. You've seen a similar feature if you've ever taken a good look at the classic 85020 Ping Anser putters from the early '70s—the number is Ping's Phoenix zip code. What did that little slot, too narrow to fit a resort scorecard, give Faxon? The sound he wanted, the swing weight he wanted, the coefficient of restitution (COR) he wanted. Just like the collision between the face of a 460cc driver and a two-piece ball at 123 miles an hour (Bubba Watson's clubhead speed, one of the fastest on Tour), the putter-ball fender bender has a trampoline effect. If you could roll it like Faxon, your putter's COR would be meaningful to you too.

How much less did the putter weigh with the slit cut into it? It lightened the head by the weight of two dimes, if that. But these are not ordinary people with standard-issue senses.

A few years ago at the Tour Championship, Tiger Woods was on the range with some of the Nike equipment guys. Woods, often acknowledged by his peers for having the greatest eye on Tour, was looking for a backup five-wood. All he wanted was an exact replica of what he had in his bag. Manufacturers know that no two clubs are identical. Close, but not identical. Temperature and humidity in the casting process are always in flux, and the result is that clubs have marginal differences. Woods was testing two five-woods that were identical only in theory. One would land the understudy role, the other would turn into a nice gift, the five-wood that nearly made it as Tiger's backup cleek.

Woods anointed one club as his first alternate. The other was rejected for being too small.

The Nike guys brought the clubs back to the lab. Out came the engineer calipers, able to measure club width to one one–thousandth of an inch. The club that Woods insisted was smaller was smaller—by less than .005 of an inch in width. Well within manufacturing tolerances. But Woods could tell.

Players with immense strength, like Woods, who also have a highly developed sense of feel are not common. Those with both possess a lethal combination. There's a long list of golfers claiming to be feel players. They are golf's soul surfers. If you had a dollar for every time Farmers Insurance Open champ Bubba Watson identified himself as a feel player in the interviews he gave last year, you'd have $53, maybe more.

One day in January, Watson came to the Ping office and driving range, in industrial Phoenix, where he was subjected to the first SI So-You-Think-You're-a-Feel-Player Field Test. He was an excellent sport about it, and he was determined to ace the thing.

The lanky lefthander lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., near the unassuming, almost homey Ping factory. (You see various Solheim family members here and there, dispensing weight-loss tips and design ideas.) Watson, 32, has played Ping clubs all his life. His parents gave him odd-numbered Ping irons for his 12th birthday, and even ones a year later. By Tour standards he knows next to nothing about club specs.

The Feel Field Test would soon begin. He didn't seem too edgy. He joked with two kiddie golfers who were hanging around, one, in knickers, a ringer for Payne Stewart, the other a junior Rickie Fowler, with the hair and the flat-brimmed Puma hat. "Aaron Baddeley and I are very close," Watson said, referring to the Tour player. "Our wives are good friends. We go to the same church. But when Aaron starts talking about shaft tip points, I have to leave the room."

You do not talk to Watson about tip points or butt width or any of that stuff. But if Matt Rollins, Ping's Tour rep and the man in charge of fulfilling Watson's idiosyncratic club requirements, slides on a grip that's crooked by a hair, he'll hear about it right away.

"Take his 60-degree wedge, which is actu­ally bent to 63," Rollins says. "He doesn't want the center line on the grips pointing to a square face." That would be conventional, and Bubba doesn't do conventional. "He wants it pointing to an open face, so what he thinks is square is actually open, making the 63 more like 66. Then he plays it with an open face, and that makes it more like a 70."

Rollins and his colleagues at Ping have developed a system that assures Watson's grips will be centered to seriously open faces. At a gripping station, the Pingsters have marked up something that looks like a protractor to show Watson's preferred open-face positions. From there the grip goes on straight, using a laser line to assure it is centered. It's all very scientific. Naturally, Watson's eye will occasionally override the instrumentation.

"See, I'm a feel player," says Watson, who lost the PGA Championship to Martin Kaymer in a playoff last year. "I'm trying to trick my body and my mind into thinking my clubs are square when they're actually open." Watson doesn't like to play any straight shots. He finds it easier to curve a shot than to hit it straight. That's his art. Hooks and slices and stingers and moon shots.

Nobody on Tour has grips like Watson's. He starts with extra-thick ones. Then he has Rollins put 10 wraps of tape underneath the top half of the grip and 12 underneath the bottom. In the January Feel Field Test, Watson was blindly given three nine-irons, two of which weren't wrapped to his specs. He rejected the impostors in seconds. They were two wraps from standard.

Later in the FFT, Watson was given seven wedges, with lofts of 60, 58, 56, 54, 52, 50 and 47 degrees. The shafts were all the same length. The clubs were jumbled. He could not see the loft markings. He was asked to order them. It was batting practice. Watson went 7 for 7 without a hiccup. If you think it's easy, test yourself the next time you're at your neighborhood Golfsmith. Your correspondent, formerly proud of his eye, went 3 for 7, and his complaint that southpaw clubs all look the same to a righthanded duffer elicited no sympathy from Bubba. "Thing is, once you get one wrong, you got two wrong," he said cheerfully. His logic was flawless.

Early in the FFT, Watson was given two eight-irons and told to report to the committee what was different about them. He hit one 190-yard shot after another. "I'm going to get this, I'm going to get this," he said. Finally, he gave up.

"They seem the same," he said.

"They are the same," Rollins said.

They did not come to fisticuffs. In fact, Bubba smiled.

Watson was given two four-irons, one with a slightly upright 61.5-degree lie (the angle at which the shaft comes into the club), the other with his normal 59.5-degree lie. Watson quickly realized that the 61.5 four-iron was producing a higher, hookier shot than normal. He raised his hands to lower the toe and lower the flight and reduce the hook.

Later, playing beautiful draws and fades with a six-iron, Watson said, "I like this club."

"You should," Rollins told him. "It's your backup six-iron."

Watson couldn't always immediately identify how the clubs were different by looking at or holding them, but he could always, without fail, tell you how one club played differently from the next.

A blind driver test yielded the most extreme results. Watson's 315-yard drives with a nine-degree loft felt like pop-ups to him, while his 330-yard drives with a 7.5 driver felt like the real deal. As you would expect, 7.5 is his normal loft. Then he was given a 7.5 driver that had (unbeknownst to him) an extra 40 grams in the butt end of the grip. He made one swing and ­reported, "I can't feel the head."

At the end of the day, the Feel Field Test committee met. In addition to the subject's FFT results, which were excellent, and the hundreds of shots the committee had watched him play in competition, anecdotal evidence was considered. For instance, there was the time a caddie—not his regular man, Ted Scott—called a delicate 60-yard pitch shot 80 yards. The number went in one ear and out the other. Watson eyeballed the distance, trusted the yardage in his head and stuffed the shot. Sounds like a feel player.

The committee considered the stories from his games with friends, when Bubba will shoot even par or better playing with only a four-iron. Yes, greenside sand shots with a four-iron. Sounds like a feel player.

On the Ping range the other day, somebody asked Watson how far away a flag was.

More than 45. Less than 50. "Forty–seven," Bubba settled on.

A Ping man walked out and measured it. Forty-six and change.

Give the gentleman his certificate.