BUBBA WATSON is part of a dying breed – tour players with personality.
The 32-year-old, who grew up on the Florida panhandle shaping plastic balls around his house and under trees with a cut-down 9 iron, is not an emotionless, PR-trained robot. He is compassionate, emotional and enthusiastic. He appreciates the position he is in.
Watson engages with fans, talks candidly and plays in a swashbuckling style not dissimilar to one of his heroes, Seve.
Bubba has never had a lesson – and doesn’t plan to – and never thinks about the technical side of his swing. He steps up to the ball, aims left if he wants to draw it, and right if he wants to fade it (he’s a lefty, remember), and carves artistic arcs in the sky that not even Tiger Woods can visualise. The World No 2 said: “The lines and shapes Bubba takes, sometimes I can’t see them myself.”
Watson’s method is inevitably inconsistent but he accepts poor play in a refreshing manner.
The devout Christian got his first win at the 2010 Travelers with his late father Gerry, a Vietnam war veteran, watching on from the side as he fought throat cancer.
Bubba kicked on to qualify for the Ryder Cup and nearly won the PGA in the process. “I’m just happy to make the Ryder Cup,” he said after Martin Kaymer’s win. His energy lit up Celtic Manor.
Here is Bubba, in his own words.
Q: What was going through your mind down the stretch on the way to your first tour win?
On the 17th tee was I was leading by one and I knew I’d still be in a tie for the lead if I bogeyed it. I went in the water and ended up making double and going one back but I knew 18 was birdie-able as I’d done it a few times that week.
I hit a really good drive and it hit the cart path and bounced real high and rolled out. I had only a chip left because of that and hit it to seven feet and made the putt.
Q: How did you feel over the putt to make the play-off?
I was so nervous. Luckily it dropped so I was against Corey (Pavin) and Scott (Verplank) and pulled it off. It meant a lot as I had worked hard since I was six.
Q: You’ve said your attitude stopped you winning sooner. What specifically was wrong?
In 2009 I got to a low point. My mental game just went away, I don’t know where. Luckily I found it. My caddie sat me down and said ‘you need to take a week off’ and that if I didn’t, he would quit.
He’s a fellow Christian, we are great friends, I babysit his kids – I love the guy to death. So when a good friend told me he was going to quit because of my attitude, I knew I had to change it.
Off the course as soon as I sign the scorecard, I love to have fun. I never worry about anything. I never pout, I never get mad. But on the course, everything changed. I was a totally different person. It wasn’t the Bubba my wife fell in love with or my friends love. So that was a hard time in my life.
Q: What made you mad?
Playing bad golf. I have all the confidence in the world but inside the ropes I let everything bother me – fans, cameras… everything except the golf course. I was angry for no reason. And as a Christian man you’ve got to look at that. My big sin was being miserable on the course. What my caddie said was a slap in the face. I was grateful he stood up and said what he did.
Q: How much did you enjoy your Ryder Cup debut?
I had a great time but playing in it was harder than making that putt to win a tournament! It was fun and a great experience. To represent your country is an honour. Obviously we wanted to win but playing for my country and in front of the fans, who were very respectful, was an honour.
Q: What was it like on the 1st tee with all the fans singing?
It was real fun on the 1st. They had chants for the Euros and some were so funny – we were talking about the chants and how they come up with them all week. It was so fun what they were saying.
To represent your country is an honour. Obviously we wanted to win but playing for my country and in front of the fans, who were very respectful, was an honour. Q: Did you like the course?
Yes, it was a great, fun course. Obviously we’d rather have seen it in better condition as it rained a lot but I thought they did well.
Q: In the PGA Championship play-off against Martin Kaymer, did you mis-hit your approach?
When I hit it I thought I hit it pretty good. It didn’t come out, I guess, the way I thought. I asked the cameraman where it went as I thought it was in the bunker but then I heard the crowd go ‘Ooooooh’ – from where we were you couldn’t see the bunker or water, just the flag.
Q: If you could have a shot back from 2010 would it be that one?
No, it wouldn’t be that one. It would have probably been one of the putts at the Ryder Cup that could have changed momentum around towards our team.
Q: You had a much longer approach than Kaymer, and as you’re renowned for big hitting, did you mis-hit your tee shot?
I hit the tee shot fine. On that hole the whole week I hit the same tee shot – I didn’t try to kill the driver every time I just tried to hit it easy and play a big cut. It goes a lot shorter but is more accurate for position. That one didn’t cut enough and bounced in the rough.
Q: Did you feel for Dustin Johnson over the bunker rule?
It was heartbreaking. He played great golf and just made a mistake. That situation was weird. We sat in the locker room not knowing what was going on. The play-off was weird, it didn’t seem right.
Q: Are you good enough to get in that position again?
Oh yes, I think I’m good enough and getting there shows I can do it. It was a step in the right diection. I’m looking to improve.
Q: Does Augusta give you the best chance of Major?
It seems that way. The course sets up good for me, just like it does for Phil Mickelson. The shape of the holes really works well for my cut, but that course comes down to putting. If I am putting good I have a good chance. It is my best chance at two per cent, the others give me a one per cent chance.
Q: You have lost a bit of weight over the last couple of seasons. Was it to improve your golf?
I lost a lot of weight after I started with my trainer. I changed my diet and my clothes are a lot tighter now. A lot more like the European cut that you guys wear. The last few years they were American cut and you know they are different!
The weight loss has made me healthier and a better golfer. I did it to become healthy not for golf, though it does give me more energy on the course on long days.
Q: Is it true you have never had a lesson?
Correct. I only take advice from someone who is better than me. Tiger was No 1 for ages so I said he’d be the one I’d take advice from. I guess now I will take advice from Lee Westwood!
Why should I listen to a golf teacher who I can beat? It’s more fun to do it yourself and you get more pride. When I won it was because of me, not because of anyone else. That’s why I do it.
Q: If you were playing poorly, do you think you’d be tempted?
No, I’ve never been tempted. The game comes naturally to me. It’s fun. And I don’t want to make it a job. I do this because I love it. I’ve been angry, as I’ve said, but I love to do this. If I get a lesson, that means it’s a job. If I need to take a lesson, I’d give up the game. Well, pro golf, I wouldn’t give up golf.
Q: When did you begin teaching yourself?
When I was six I used to play with a plastic ball and a cut-down 9 iron and I went around my house left then right and learned to shape it round the house. I learned how to keep it under trees and over trees. I learned how to move it at a young age and just kept doing it. In the old days, people like the great Seve were playing equipment that was different and he could shape it better than anyone. I don’t see straight lines, I see curves at pins, that’s how I do it. Some people say it’s not right.
Q: You play without technical thoughts and just hit it?
The only thing I think about is do I want to aim it right or left to draw it or cut it. I never think about technique. I do it because I can’t hit it straight. I do it because that’s how I play golf.
Q: Does your big hitting come naturally then?
It’s something I’ve always done. I’m not trying to hit it far a lot of times, I’m just trying to get it in play. I don’t always go 100 per cent. If I went all out maybe I’d be No 1 in stats all the time!
Q: Is there rivalry between you, Robert Garrigus and Dustin (top PGA Tour drivers)?
Yeah they are my main rivals. Garrigus goes all-out and hits it pretty far, but if JB Holmes went all out he would be up there too. There’s like five guys that if they went all out it would rotate each year. Phil Mickelson is quite long, John Daly is still long. There’s a new guy from Canada called Graham Delaet and he can hit it. Alvaro Quiros hits it pretty far too.
Q: Slow play is an issue on tour. How would you tackle it?
If they asked me I’d say penalties – you give them a shot penalty. That would hurt them much more. FedEx cup points, their position that week, the player of the year status, stroke average, it hurts them a lot more than fines. They have a lot of money – that won’t hurt them – penalties would.
Q: You make a lot of birdies – but also dropped shots. How can you iron the bad shots out?
That’s a good question. If I knew that I would be challenging the top 10! It’s the way I play though really. I play real aggressive all the time, it’s just the way I grew up.
Q: You’ve always been a Ping player. Why’s that?
I’ve played their equipment since I was eight so it’s something I’m used to. For me they’re the most forgiving blade irons. As I do it all myself, sometimes I don’t hit the sweet spot so these irons are great.
Q: You have used only three putters in your entire career. Is trust the secret to success on the greens?
I don’t know what the secret is, but great putters don’t change putters that much. Look at Brad Faxon, Ben Crenshaw, Tiger Woods – they don’t change much. It’s never the putter’s fault it’s always the person putting!
Q: Your real name is Gerry, why do people call you Bubba?
When I was born, there was a guy called Bubba Smith who played American Football and he was a big old guy (Ed: 6ft 7, 19st) and when I was first born my dad didn’t play golf and so when I was born real fat and real chubby – and over 10lbs – he said I looked like a football player. Like Bubba!
Q: How do you get on with Tiger?
“I’ve learned a lot by watching him – not by him telling me. I learned by watching how he practises and how he goes about a practice round to learn about a golf course.
“I’ve learned from his mental focus and preparation. He hits shots on the range with a purpose. He’s mentally focused after each shot no matter how bad or good his shot is he’s still ready for the next shot – he doesn’t let it linger. Whereas I think about a lot of stuff out there. I think about what I’m going to eat for dinner, what I’m going to watch on TV, what video games I’ll play – we’re out there for so long. It’s a long day and my mind wanders. But I’m getting better.
“Tiger and I also trash talk. I talk about how short he hits it and he talks about how many Majors he has!”