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Masters Champion Bubba Watson is the PGA Tour’s latest superstar, but don’t think for a minute fame will change him
From the Print Edition:
Jeff Daniels-The Newsroom, July/August 2012
Bubba Watson isn’t afraid to cry.
Bubba Watson isn’t afraid NOT to have a coach.
Bubba Watson isn’t afraid to go on the “Ellen Degeneres Show.”
So when he found himself 20 yards into the woods to the right of the 10th fairway at Augusta National Golf Club with the Masters green jacket on the line, what would be the big deal about hooking a wedge 40 yards onto the green? This, after all, would be nothing more than Bubba Golf. “If I’ve got a swing, I’ve got a shot,” Bubba Watson says.
When Watson pulled off one of the most spectacular shots in golf history this April, leading to his play-off victory over Louis Oosthuizen and his first major championship, he went from PGA Tour star to supernova. Bubba from Bagdad, Florida, was now the toast of the town, whisked to New York to do the talk show circuit—Piers Morgan, David Letterman, Charlie Rose—where he was celebrated for his unique swing and freedom of spirit.
And all along, he cried. He cried with his mother Mollie on the 10th green at Augusta. He cried on an interview the next morning on the Golf Channel. And he had been crying tears of joy for days before coming to Augusta when, after four years of uncertainty and heartbreak, he and his wife Angie had been able to adopt a baby boy, Caleb.
This willingness to be so openly human, his supersonic golf swing, his love of music, charitable work and the social media (he’s a prolific tweeter), have made him a new face of the PGA Tour and one of its major attractions. He describes himself, endearingly, as “awesome.” And hey, he’s left- handed. It’s all these attributes taken together that make up the persona of Bubba Golf.
“Bubba Golf just doesn’t stand for the way he plays the game, but how he lives his life,” says his agent and friend Jens Beck. “It’s doing everything with an enormous passion. It’s a description of his lifestyle. We don’t try to script him, to try to mold him into this concept of Bubba Golf. We just let him be who he is, and who he is connects with so many people in a genuine way.”
“I’m just Bubba from Bagdad, Florida,” says Watson two weeks after his Masters victory at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. “For me, I think that resonates with everybody because I’m from a small town. I played golf on public golf courses growing up and I think everybody can see that. Everybody can see that my swing is homegrown. That means everybody has a chance to do it. Hard work, dedication, practice and the drive to do it and not worry about what other people say.”
Bubba from Bagdad is the son of a former Army Green Beret who served in Vietnam and a mother who worked two jobs. His father died in October of 2010, having battled throat cancer long enough to be able to watch his son win his first PGA Tour event at the Travelers Championship and his first appearance on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He is a product of Milton High School (which also produced PGA players Boo Weekly and Heath Slocum), of Faulkner State Community College in Alabama, of the University of Georgia and of the Nationwide Tour.
Watson’s golf swing is a product of his backyard and the public courses of the Pensacola area. The shot that won the Masters was no more than he had been doing since his youth. With nothing more than a 9-iron and some plastic golf balls, Watson had been maneuvering golf balls around trees and the corners of the house since he was a little boy. Actually, he was never little, the Bubba nickname coming from his father when, as a rather large newborn, Gerry Sr. saw him as a Bubba, not a baby.
“Let’s go back to Bagdad, Florida, where I grew up,” says Watson. “The big, tall 100-year-old trees. I had plastic golf balls, so I learned to hit in the trees, through the trees, over the trees, under the trees. So when it comes to the creativity on the golf course, that’s just who I am. That’s just what I’ve done. So that doesn’t scare me. It thrills me because then I can pull off some shots. That’s more exciting.”
In the early evening of April 8, the sun setting through the magnificent pines of the Augusta National Golf Club, Watson put himself into a playoff with Oosthuizen, who himself had hit one of the legendary shots of the Masters when he holed out from fairway on the par 5 second hole for a double eagle 2. Watson had birdied four straight holes from the 13th through the 16th to finish tied with Oosthuizen and they each made par on the 18th, the first playoff hole.
Now they would go to the 10th hole, where Watson had saved par from the right woods in regulation.
Back at the clubhouse, his close PGA Tour friends Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler and Aaron Baddeley had stuck around to watch on television, but now felt they needed to be on the course. Watson, Crane, Fowler and Hunter Mahan were part of the “Golf Boys” rap group that made a viral music video “Oh, Oh, Oh” in 2011 to raise money for charity.
“Rickie and I were in the caddie area watching Bubba with four holes to play,” says Crane. “Rickie was in his casual clothes and I said, ‘Buddy, you’d better change. You’d better look presentable if we go out . . . We knew the situation. We knew that Angie was at home, she wasn’t able to come out because of the situation with their baby, so we just wanted to go out and support our friend who we love. So we talked a member into giving us a ride down [to the 10th green, where Baddeley had made his way as well].
From their spot behind the 10th green, they knew Watson was in the woods, but he was so deep that they couldn’t see him. Watson couldn’t see them, or the green, either. “The shot was roughly 40 yards [of draw],” says Watson, who chose a 52-yard wedge. “I knew I could make it come out hot, just rolled my wrist over and hooked it about 40 yards. For me, it was just something as a child I was used to seeing shots like that, so I pulled it off.”
Crane, Fowler and Baddeley heard the shot, but didn’t see it at first. “We heard him hit the shot. I’m like, oh gosh, is that right at us? You always think the ball is coming at you, right? I’m going oh boy, this is way off line, and all of the sudden it put on a blinker. I wasn’t watching the ball at this point. I’m just ducking. And then all of the sudden people started clapping. I’m like, what? I look up and see the ball, like oh my gosh. It will be one of the greatest shots of our era. Just an incredible shot.”
It was Bubbalicious, if you like.
Watson’s extraordinary talent is supported by a small, close-knit cadre of family and friends, and starts with his wife Angie, a former University of Georgia basketball player who at 6’4” has him by an inch. It includes caddie Ted Scott, who he hooked up with in 2006 after an introduction by Crane, trainer and nutritionist Andrew Fisher, who he hired after the PGA in 2009 (which he lost in the playoff to Martin Kaymer) and his agent Beck. There is no swing coach and never has been.
“Angie is just an angel,” says Beck. “She is a wonderfully calm and supporting person. Bubba is excitable, can get angry with himself. She totally gets the competitive nature of him. It would be difficult to find anyone else who could give him that level of support. She gets it. He doesn’t have to explain himself to her, but of course he talks out everything with her.”
Beck gives caddy Scott the credit for coming up with Bubba Golf (Watson says it’s original to him), and Watson gives Scott credit for setting him straight during Jack Nicklaus’ tournament in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010. There had been too much anger in his game. He didn’t have the ability to leave the bad shot behind. He was becoming cross, and Scott didn’t like it. With Angie and Fisher close by, Scott told Watson that he would stop carrying his bag if he didn’t get rid of his baggage. “My caddie told me he was going to walk away from me, even though I was a good player,” says Watson. “It hit home.”
As a teenager, Watson was excitable, rambunctious. Nothing out of the ordinary, but he did have a buzz going on. Hiram Cook, a family friend and owner of the Stonebrook Golf Course in Pace, Florida, a course Watson grew up playing, remembers Watson as highly talented and highly charged.
“Bubba was a typical teenager,” says Cook. “He was friends with my kids and would be over to the house a lot. They were kids who sometimes did things you didn’t want them to do, but nothing bad. Bubba once ran through a plate glass door at my house trying to run out to the swimming pool. He just shattered the thing and put a pretty good bump on his head. But that’s just kid stuff.”
Cook knew that when it came to golf, Watson was something special. “Bubba is a unique individual. He attended some clinics for kids but I don’t think he ever had an individual lesson,” says Cook. “He was a really talented young man and he was able to figure things out for himself. His father would pick my brain about things, but Bubba’s swing is his own. He was always bigger than most of the other kids. At 12, 13 he was hitting way past kids three and four years older and beating them.”
Watson hit a lot of golf balls, plastic and otherwise, during his high school years. He didn’t particularly enjoy hitting the books. Chris Hack, his coach at the University of Georgia, was familiar with Watson from his time as director of the American Junior Golf Association. He wanted Watson to come to Georgia, but he didn’t have the grades. So he asked an acquaintance, Dr. Leo Kling, if he could get Watson into Faulkner State Community College in Alabama, where Kling was the golf coach.
“I’m a chemistry professor, not a swing coach,” says Kling. “What I did for Bubba was get him to go to class. I didn’t do anything for his golf because he had that figured out himself, but I needed to get him going to school. He was much more mature on the golf course than he was off of it. But he did a lot of growing up here, and he actually did quite well academically, certainly good enough to get him into Georgia. I must say he did like the physical sciences a lot more than he liked English lit.
“I knew he had a lot of talent, enough talent to play on the PGA Tour. What I didn’t know was if he had the control of his mind and his attitude. That was the big question, and I think he has answered that quite well. I know Angie and his caddie have had a lot to do with it.”
Kling recalls a precious golf moment. He was with his team practicing on the range, and there was a friend of Kling’s battling with his driver. “I asked Bubba to show the guy how to hit a driver. He hits one normal, well over 300 yards. This guy was right-handed, so he takes the guy’s driver, turns it upside down to swing left-handed and probably hit it 280. He turns to my friend and says, ‘It obviously wasn’t the club.’ Classic Bubba.”
The classic Bubba, the Bubba of Bubba Golf is freewheeling and fun loving, but serious about his golf, his commitment to charitable work and to his Christian faith.
In 2009 he made the choice, out of the blue to Beck, to hire Andrew Fisher as his personal trainer and nutritionist. He didn’t need a swing coach, but he determined he needed a body coach. “Give Fish some credit for Bubba’s success,” says Beck. “Don’t underestimate what he’s done for Bubba. He’s very, very good at reading Bubba.”
Fisher is a graduate of Fairmont State University where he studied therapeutics and nutrition. He also got himself trained as a massage therapist. With that background, he got this thing in his head about being a caddie, finding himself interested in the relationship between Tiger Woods and Steve Williams. He had no experience at hauling a bag, but he is educated in areas that the modern athlete is concerned about. He was able to pick up a bag here and there, including for Ryan Moore, a friend of Watson’s. It was that relationship that led to Watson hiring him as his personal trainer, traveling with him to every event.
Watson was well over 200 pounds when he hired Fisher, who immediately changed his diet and developed a conditioning program that included massage. He took Watson’s weight down to the high 180s, and gave his body shape. That shape, says Fisher, is a competitive advantage.
“You look at Tiger and what he did to his body,” says Fisher. “He didn’t do that just for strength. There is an intimidation factor in looking strong, being cut. That’s what we wanted to do for Bubba. To change the inner game we wanted to change the outer game, to get some of that intimidation factor. He’s got that now, and he’s stronger now than he was when he was heavier. He can recruit more strength now.”
Physical conditioning is part of the whole mentality of Watson’s cadre. “There are times when we are in a workout facility when Angie is training next to him, Ted is next to her, Jens is next to him. I don’t know of another player who has that sort of support when it comes to conditioning.”
But as Fisher well knows, it isn’t all about golf for Bubba Watson.
“I have a blast with Bubba. He’s a man who really enjoys life,” says Fisher. “Golf is something we do between having fun.”
Fun for Bubba Watson is music, especially that sector of rap music that has a more wholesome quality. He’s combining that love with a charitable endeavor in Columbus, Ohio, this May called Bubba’s Bash. There, performers such as Trip Lee, Toby Mae, Canon and Jamie Grace will be on the card as Watson raises funds for a medical clinic in Liyavo, Kenya.
Fun for Watson is adding to his collection of athletic shoes, which exceeds 200 pairs. Fun is buying the original “General Lee” Dodge Charger that was used on the “Dukes of Hazzard” television show. He’s got all the tapes from that show, too. Fun is tweeting, Jet Skiing, goofing with people.
Under the rules of the adoption process, his wife Angie had to stay in Florida with their new baby so she couldn’t come to the Masters. Watson and Fisher went to a movie one night, and Fisher recalls a classic Bubba moment. They parked their car next to one in which a young couple was having what seemed an intense conversation. Bubba kept looking at them, smiling.
Looking and looking and looking, smiling and smiling and smiling. Then he pulled the car forward, stopped, looked back at them smiling. Then he drove away, came back, parked next to them again and smiled at them. It was unlikely they knew who he was, but eventually he got a smile out of them.
“Bubba is a very interesting man,” says Fisher. “He’s child-like, not childish. He’s serious when he needs to be.”
Watson has always had a charitable heart. He has been a long-time sponsor of the Divot Derby, a junior tournament in Pensacola. He gave $50,000 to build a playground at the Ronald McDonald House in Pensacola. He’s been associated with Birdies for the Brave, an organization that helps wounded war veterans. Before 2012 started Watson established Bubba and Friends Drive to a Million in association with his equipment maker PING to raise $1 million for various charities. PING donates money for every drive Watson hits over 300 yards with his pink-shafted driver. He also has charitable work going with his apparel company, Travis Mathew. During the Masters he wore the same outfit each day, a white shirt with pink accents and white pants. Mathew made 100 of the outfits available for $200 each with all money going to charity. They sold in a flash, crashing the company’s website in the process.
“Somehow this year I’ve just played great. Now I’m the Masters champ,” says Watson. “But the other stuff is what I really want to be a big impact [on] and we are doing the Bubba Bash where 10 artists are putting on a concert to build a medical clinic in Africa. So that stuff is more important to me. Right now, with this platform that I have of winning the Masters, it’s going to give me a better chance to raise good dollars for cancer, for the center in Africa and different things.”
Monster golf, creative golf, charitable work, fun. And now a new baby, Caleb. That’s Bubba’s life, that’s Bubba Golf.
“I’ve never let golf ruin my life,” says Watson. “You are talking to someone that’s goofy and messed up in the head. So I’m different than everybody else.”
Jeff Williams is a contributing editor of Cigar Aficionado.
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