AVONDALE, La. – Bubba Watson arrived in the Zurich Classic media room at 1:25 p.m. Tuesday, marking his return to the PGA Tour after his post-Masters absence. Watson will always play his unique style, continuing this week at TPC Louisiana, where he is the defending champion. That much will stay the same. What will be different now that he’s the Masters champion remains to be seen.
Newly-minted major champions always find their schedules filled with new obligations. This will be especially true for Watson, who has an everyman, John Daly-esque appeal (minus the personal baggage). Watson refers to himself as “Bubba from Bagdad, Fla.,” a reference to his humble roots a few hours east of here.
Watson said those closest to him have told him to “just be Bubba” and not be concerned with criticisms that may come. His first competitive round since the Masters will start at 7:30 a.m. Thursday, when he is scheduled to tee off with Steve Stricker and Webb Simpson. Watson beat Simpson in a playoff to win last year’s Zurich Classic.
This increased media attention isn’t the only thing new in Watson’s life. He and his wife, Angie, adopted an infant son, Caleb, before the Masters. Wife and son are home in Orlando because Caleb can’t leave Florida until the adoption process is finalized. The new Masters champion also is learning to change diapers. He has changed five so far, he said.
Watson is one of the Tour’s most unique players. He enjoys using media, whether it be Twitter or Letterman, to show a fun-loving side that contrasts with so many of his peers. Watson committed himself at the start of the year to raising more money for charity, an effort that no doubt will be helped by his victory at Augusta National. He has organized a charity concert, Bubba’s Bash on May 29 in Columbus, Ohio, to raise money for the Bubba and Angie Watson Medical Center in Africa.
There also is a downside to the attention, one that Watson will have to learn to accommodate. Now he’ll be expected to talk with reporters after shooting 75, whereas before he could slink unnoticed to the clubhouse. There will be cameras documenting almost every shot, whether he’s in contention or not, for the next few months. He’s No. 4 in the Official World Golf Ranking and the highest-ranked American.
“I’m so focused on being a good character, being true to myself, following my belief system and not worrying about what the press says or anything like that,” Watson said. “Golf just helps me get that avenue out there where I can raise more charity dollars.”
Watson argued, albeit playfully, with a reporter when Watson was asked about his appearance here in 2002, which was his PGA Tour debut. Watson repeatedly contended that he first played New Orleans in 2004. “That was 2004, right? You can’t trust that media … I’m probably right,” he joked. Turns out it was ’02. He shot 73-78 to miss the cut. The exchange was funny, but it also demonstrated an underlying distrust of a Fourth Estate that has been good to him.
Watson is at TPC Louisiana this week out of obligation to his title defense. He already has withdrawn from next week’s Wells Fargo Championship to spend more time with his family. “I have not had enough time with my family, by myself or anything, but I felt obligated to my fans, to New Orleans, that I should be here,” Watson said. “I felt like it was the right thing to do.”
Watson shot 15-under 273 at TPC Louisiana last year for his second victory of 2011. He missed just one cut for the rest of the year, but also didn’t finish better than 16th (BMW Championship). Contrast that with this year, in which an 18th-place finish at the season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions is his worst showing. What can we expect this week out of Watson? That remains to be seen. He’ll be Thursday’s focal point, though.
“I play golf because it’s fun,” Watson said. “Every day is different. Some days, it’s windy; some days, it’s not. Some days, the ground is firm; some days, it’s wet. You wake up. It’s always a challenge.”
Come Thursday, Watson will face a new set of challenges as the game’s popular new major champion.