Masters 2013: Watson is ultimate mystery man

Bubba Watson dons the green jacket after winning the 2012 Masters in a two-hole, sudden-death playoff with Louis Oosthuizen.

Bubba Watson dons the green jacket after winning the 2012 Masters in a two-hole, sudden-death playoff with Louis Oosthuizen.

Indelible as the moment was – difficult shot, historical significance, playoff pressure – what created the opportunity was a stark contrast that invites intrigue.

First shot, wild and troublesome. Next, intuitive and precious.

Authored by any other player it would have been surprising, but not from Bubba Watson. His Masters-winning moment a year ago – he hooked a wedge shot some 40 yards around trees and under branches, landed his ball about 135 yards away and rolled it to 10 feet to set up a playoff triumph over Louis Oosthuizen – was vintage, for no one seems to cover the spectrum like the left-hander from Bagdad, Fla.

Bad swing to brilliant shot in a heartbeat.

Hugely popular with the public, he’s not there with PGA Tour colleagues.

Engaging while sitting beside David Letterman, Jay Leno and Piers Morgan, he is said by friends to be uncomfortable in crowds where cameras are plentiful.

Fun-loving one moment, cantankerous the next.

Social media, he gets. Social grace, he struggles with.

“He’s good at things that are different, like he was at (the University of Georgia). But back then we thought he was crazy,” said Erik Compton, who played junior golf against and college golf with Watson, yet struggles to paint a comprehensive picture of him. “Turns out he’s a marketing genius, because the guy’s brand is so popular – regardless if people love him or don’t like him.”

Watson once wrote a $50,000 check to Ryuji Imada’s tsunami-relief fund. But he’s also the one who nearly brought a photographer to tears as the only member of this year’s Hyundai Tournament of Champions field unwilling to let her photograph his golf bag and clubs.

So who is this remarkable, yet confounding, personality?

“You’ve got to write the truth,” said a competitor.

The truth?

Philosophers, essayists, authors, poets,

politicians and humorists since the dawn of time have debated what truth is. It was Oscar Wilde who said, “The pure and simple truth is rarely pure and never simple,” and James Russell Lowell wrote that “Truth, after all, wears a different face to everybody and it would be too tedious to wait till all were agreed.”

• • •

At a junior tournament, 9-year-old Charles Howell III watched “a left-handed kid named Bubba from Bagdad hitting it 250 yards.” He laughed. “We were all country club kids, so you can imagine what a scary figure he was to us.”

More than 20 years later, Howell calls Watson a friend and neighbor – both live inside the gates of Isleworth near Orlando, Fla. – and says there’s nothing frightening about “Bubba from Bagdad.” But even as Howell talks of Watson’s “quietness” and “warm heart,” he concedes that answering the question “Who is Bubba Watson?” is a challenge.

“He has a very public Twitter persona, but that isn’t who Bubba is,” Howell said. “A lot of people are intrigued by Bubba. A lot of people think they know him. But he is hard to explain.”

So, how about something easier? Such as what he is, a golfer who owns a major championship among his four PGA Tour titles.

“The talent has always been there,” said Georgia coach Chris Haack. “But he’s slowly matured and figured it out.”

“A dynamic player,” said former Georgia teammate Nick Cassini.

“You saw a lot of kids, but you knew he was an incredible golfer,” said Heath Slocum, who preceded Watson at Milton High School in Florida’s Panhandle and on the PGA Tour.

“Very gifted hand-and-eye coordination,” Compton said.

“Bubba was a legend way before he got on the PGA Tour,” said Shane Supple, a Panhandle star pre-Watson. Supple, who was good enough to beat David Duval for the Florida state high school championship in 1989 and who eventually played on what is now the Web.com Tour, wasn’t fazed when Watson delivered that unforgettable Augusta hook. He has seen better.

“He made a birdie with an out-of-bounds ball on a par 5,” Supple said. “Think about that. Went for the green in two with his driver, hit it out of bounds, dropped and knocked the next one in the hole with a driver.”

Why does Bubba produce such folklore?

“You love the challenge,” Watson said. “You want the adrenaline rush. You want that pressure.”

• • •

Cassini says you have to understand that Watson isn’t someone who broke onto the PGA Tour in 2006 at age 27, earned some success and dreamed up the ensemble – pink driver, homemade swing and “Bubba Golf.”

“He had multi-color putting shafts in AJGA,” Cassini said. “He’s a master marketer and was doing it back then. He has always had the ‘I-don’t-care’ attitude, but he knew one day his brand would stick out.”

“When I first saw him, he was 13 or 14 and he had a flash to him,” Haack said. “He wore knickers – and not just any knickers, but bright yellow and hot pink.”

Offensive?

Not to his veteran caddie, Ted Scott. “A lot of people are scared to be themselves,” Scott said. “Bubba isn’t afraid.”

Not to Imada, either: “Who wants to see a machine play golf? I mean, he’s one of a kind.”

Watson shrugs it off: “I love to have fun. I love to goof around.”

“When you get down to it,” Howell said, “isn’t that a pretty cool quality to have, that you’re truly committed to who you are?”

Within the insular world of the PGA Tour, however, there are those who think Watson is too much of an individual, that his “look at me” actions and “friendships” with Ellen DeGeneres and Justin Bieber strike a shallow chord. When he first made a few bucks on the mini-tours, Watson bought a cheap Mercedes-Benz and stenciled “Bubba’s Benz” onto the back window, then toured the circuits. It offended some, but Cassini laughs.

“He loves it. Thrives on it,” Cassini said. “To his credit, it doesn’t really matter if he rubs people the wrong way. People who like him, like him. People who don’t, don’t.”

Scott suggests Watson gets that from his late father, Gerry, a hardened Green Beret who “was tough and lived a tough life.” Gerry espoused caution with other people and little caution when it came to being different.

“(Bubba) was raised to be who he is,” Scott said.

Famously, Watson uttered the “veterans can kiss my ass” line when he objected to Steve Elkington’s actions during play in New Orleans in 2008. Earlier this year at TPC Scottsdale, he didn’t like some things that fans were yelling

during play and asked security to handle it.

Last October, at the low-key Grand Slam of Golf in Bermuda, Watson lost interest and openly complained about the pace of play (his competitors were Keegan Bradley, Webb Simpson and Padraig Harrington). It took Bradley to snap, “Just play golf.” To his credit, Watson got the message.

“Has Bubba ever offended anyone? We all have. We’re all sinners,” Ben Crane said. “(But) what I believe and what Bubba believes is, we don’t live to please other people. We should have a higher standard than that.”

But aren’t Christians supposed to embrace humility? That would make you wonder about all the cars, the tweets and the quarter-million-dollar watch that Watson has worn.

“Don’t we all love attention?” Crane asked. “The reason we go to Bible study is because we’re off base. But we can encourage each other. We’re going to have a lot of fun along the way, and if the Gospel is true, we should have more fun.”

• • •

Ah, contradictions.

There’s this: Watson stars in the “Golf Boys” videos, outlandish and absurdly fun. Yet . . . “he doesn’t like crowds,” Scott said.

There’s this: When Watson moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., he didn’t buy just any Lamborghini. He got a lime-green one, then complained that it brought too much gawking. Yet . . . he went out and bought a “General Lee” car from Dukes of Hazzard fame and received even more publicity.

There’s this: Watson “just doesn’t trust people he doesn’t know,” Scott said, and that might be why some people are on the defensive around him. Yet . . . Watson has teed it up with regular members in club games at Isleworth, “and it’s hard to fault where the guy’s heart is,” Howell said.

There’s this: Having qualified for the 2012 HSBC Champions in China, Watson was among the game’s best players and the sport’s power brokers during a sponsor’s reception. Yet . . . Watson offended some players and officials when he showed up in long, baggy shorts and a T-shirt.

And what about that photographer in Hawaii? Heck, 29 of 30 guys stepped aside and let their golf bags be photographed. Why did Watson come off as spoiled and petulant, especially when Scott said that’s not who he is?

“His special tools,” as Scott called Watson’s clubs, are handmade by Ping technicians, and no doubt the left-hander’s attention-deficit disorder shines through when he sees people handle them. “He just doesn’t like it,” Scott said. “It’s what he uses to make his living.”

It’s not an excuse, but an explanation.

Watson could have handled the situation more graciously, but Scott maintains that Watson has made massive strides in the way he conducts himself around people, thanks in huge part to wife Angie, a former Georgia basketball player.

“He’s like a hot fudge sundae: a hard outer shell, but soft in the middle,” Scott said.

Just a few years ago, when Watson failed at a U.S. Open qualifier and acted surly and boorish, Scott issued an ultimatum: “I’m not asking you to be perfect. Just improve as a player and improve your attitude.” The fact that Scott is still there indicates Watson has met his caddie’s challenge.

How Watson now deals with people, Scott insists, “has been his greatest improvement, not his golf.”

Other supporters will tell you that Scott is right.

But a green jacket indicates his golf has reached new heights, too.

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