- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Bubba Watson has never met Tim Clark, the five-year Tour veteran from South Africa, yet here is Clark walking up to Watson on the back end of the driving range at Torrey Pines Golf Course the Monday before the Buick Invitational. � "Are you busy?" Clark asks. � "No, I'm just talking," replies the cocksure 27-year-old Watson, who admittedly enjoys running his mouth more than practicing. � "We'd like to get you on the launch monitor," says Clark. � "Perfect," says Watson. � As he makes his way across the range, a throng of Tour players, caddies and equipment gurus assembles around the monitor like little boys lining up to see Barry Bonds take batting practice.
"I'm more nervous now than when I'm in a tournament," says Watson, noting the crowd and taking a couple of practice swings with his pink-shafted, Ping G5 driver with 6.7 degrees of loft. Like all of Watson's swings the practice cuts are long, hard and fluid, and they rely on his exceptional hand-eye coordination. Soon, his 6'3", 180-pound body is warm and limber, and he pounds a few tee shots. The launch monitor registers the ball speed of the first two at 189 mph, while the third peaks at an even 190 mph. All three drives sail more than 350 yards, landing near the feet of the golfers at the other end of the range. Later, when Tour official Mark Russell learns of Watson's exploits on the practice tee, all he can do is shake his head and utter a line reminiscent of Chief Brody in Jaws: "They're going to need a bigger range."
Perhaps only Michelle Wie surpasses Watson in converting a potent driver and relatively little on-course success into a whirlwind of hype that's on the verge of spinning out of control. The truth is, few people outside of Watson's Florida Panhandle hometown of Bagdad (pop. 1,500) and fellow competitors on the mini-tours had heard of him before his fourth-place finish at last month's Sony Open in Hawaii, his third PGA Tour start. He was the driving-distance champion on the Nationwide tour in 2005 with a 334-yard average, but, as he says, "no one cared then because it wasn't on the PGA Tour." Now, after Watson overpowered the 7,060-yard Waialae Country Club in Honolulu with a 336-yard driving average, the world has taken notice. "I tried to show off a little bit at the Sony," says Watson. "I knew the cameras were on me. I told my caddie [John Ritterbeck], 'No matter what happens, I'm going to let people know who I am.'"
He certainly did. With the outcome all but decided, ESPN locked onto Watson. Soon thereafter he became a media darling, with features about him appearing in dozens of newspapers across the country. The stories recounted how Bubba became Bubba: The son of Gerry and Molly Watson, Gerry Jr. got his nickname because Gerry Sr. thought the babe was fat and ugly. The rest of Watson's backstory serves to burnish his budding legend. As a child, Watson took to hitting plastic golf balls around the tree-lined acre surrounding his family's house. Teeing off from the dirt driveway, he'd circle the property playing cuts and draws as well as hitting the ball high and low. By performing this exercise for five hours a day from the age of six until he was 12, Watson learned how to control the ball. "I've never had a lesson because I learned how to play all the shots in my yard," he says. "I don't know a thing about the golf swing."
Gerry, a construction worker who seldom broke 90, taught his son to keep the game simple and focus on the flagstick. As for the finer points, "All Bubba had was me and some other guys beating and banging on the golf course," says Gerry. Today Watson is the rare Tour pro who requests only one number from his caddie: the distance to the pin.
Soon Watson moved to Tanglewood Golf and Country Club in nearby Milton, where he competed with future Tour players Heath Slocum and Boo Weekley, who are five years older. "Heath and Boo were my role models," Watson says. He was a three-time American Junior Golf Association All-America while attending Milton High and then put in two years at Faulkner State ( Ala.) Community College and 21/2 more at Georgia, where he majored in consumer economics. Still a few credits shy of a degree, Watson turned pro in December 2001. That's when Gerry asked Joe Durant, a three-time PGA Tour winner and a family friend, to help Bubba with his game. "I told Gerry that the last thing Bubba needed was somebody trying to tell him how to play," says Durant. "He has a gift."
Nothing can diminish a young player's gift faster than struggling on the mini-tours. Watson, however, avoided that fate, flourishing on the Gulf Coast's Developmental Player's tour. During his first few months as a pro he won $87,000 in 12 starts and was so confident--"I felt as if I was so much better than everybody else," he says--that he bought a $50,000 Mercedes. "People saw me showing up at tournaments in that car, and they said something is not right," says Watson.
Even after he earned his Nationwide tour card at the 2002 Q school, Watson continued to play the mini-tours. For the next three years he split time between the Nationwide, Tight Lies, Maverick and Hooters tours. "I wanted to play instead of going home when I didn't get into Nationwide events," says Watson. "With the money I was making on the mini-tours, I didn't have to worry about paying my bills. When I got into a Nationwide event, I was freed up to go out and freewheel it."
Watson's breakthrough on the Nationwide tour came at the '04 Lake Erie Charity Classic at Peek'n Peak Resort in Findley Lake, N.Y., where he lost in a playoff to Kevin Stadler. "That tournament let me know that I could win at the top level," Watson says. His big break came last year, when he finished 21st on the Nationwide money list. Only the top 20 qualify for the PGA Tour, but since Jason Gore was given a battlefield promotion to the PGA Tour by winning three times on the Nationwide and then earned a 2006 exemption for taking the big Tour's 84 Lumber Classic, Watson slipped into the last spot.
Last fall Watson played in two events in Japan and three in Australia, making the cut in all five. At the Australian Masters he lost in a playoff to Robert Allenby and awed the fans with his bombs off the tee. "They didn't care if I shot 90 as long as I hit my driver a mile," says Watson.