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April 16, 2012
Ridiculously long, sublimely creative, yet absolutely just a regular guy, Masters champion Bubba Watson has a story that will bring you (and him) to tears
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April 16, 2012

Power And Grace

Ridiculously long, sublimely creative, yet absolutely just a regular guy, Masters champion Bubba Watson has a story that will bring you (and him) to tears

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Bubba Watson is the right Masters winner for these turbulent times. Augusta National may be a bastion of the 1%, but Watson is a down-home guy with a homemade golf swing whose dream car is the General Lee, the hot rod from The Dukes of Hazzard, which he recently bought at auction and has been tooling around in ever since. In the moments after Watson's unlikely victory at the 76th Masters, he thanked, in order, the Georgia Bulldogs (his alma mater), Jesus Christ ("my Lord and savior") and the host club's African-American locker room attendants, members of the 99% that make up Watson's core constituency. A native of the Florida panhandle town of Bagdad, ol' Bubba got himself in a pickle last summer when he played a tournament in Paris and couldn't quite summon the names of the famous monuments he had visited, alluding to "an arch" and a museum that "starts with an L." He's not exactly a student of golf history, either. Once asked about Tiger Woods's pursuit of Jack Nicklaus's various records, Watson said, "I'm not sure how many Masters Tiger has won. Actually, I'm not sure how many Jack has, either." He did add, helpfully, "I know it's a whole mess of 'em."

Bubba's fans (450,000 and counting on Twitter at @bubbawatson) eat up this stuff. When he's not raising money for charity or acting like golf's Jackass—have you seen the video in which he hits a ball over his house into the hot tub?—he can be found showing off his prodigious chest hair by wearing nothing under his overalls in a goofy boy band spoof on YouTube called Golf Boys. (We watched it so you don't have to.) It's delicious that Watson kicked down the door at the Masters because no one takes themselves more seriously than the lords of Augusta. They imbue their club and tournament with an absurd solemnity, but Bubba knows that golf is supposed to be fun, and he plays with a childlike wonder. At 313.1 yards, he is the PGA Tour's longest hitter by almost six yards. He swings a driver with a macho pink head and shaft for cancer awareness, and for all four rounds at the Masters his attire was all-white, in support of children with disabilities.

Self-diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, Watson never hits the same shot twice. The PGA Tour abounds with tall tales of his massive cut shots around lakes and screaming draws over distant bunkers. "I don't like to go to the center of the greens," Watson says. "I want to hit the incredible shot. Who doesn't?"

Fittingly, he won this Masters out of the trees. On the second playoff hole against a game Louis Oosthuizen, the lefthanded Watson hooked his drive into a forest of pines off the fairway of Augusta National's 10th. Two holes running he had missed 18- and 12-foot putts that would have won the Masters, but Bubba never stopped strutting around as if he were Boss Hogg. Watson's motto has always been, "If I got a swing, I got a shot." He located a gap in the trees and off the pine straw and with a gap wedge he whipsawed what he called a "40-yard hook" to within 15 feet of the hole, a small miracle that thoroughly spooked Oosthuizen. Curving a shot such a distance is remarkable by any standard, especially with today's engineered golf balls; Bubba pulled off the 155-yard shot with a short iron off a dicey lie. Never mind the pressure. Oosthuizen, the runaway winner of the 2010 British Open at St. Andrews, failed to get up and down from in front of the green, and just like that, golf had its first genuine folk hero since John Daly emerged from the backwoods of Arkansas to win the PGA in 1991.

Watson's wife, Angie, is already predicting that Bubba will serve In-N-Out burgers at next year's champions' dinner.

Oosthuizen, who dueled with Watson for 20 holes, was still trying to digest what had befallen him: "That's really entertaining to play with him, to see the shots that he's taking on and shots that I don't really see or I would ever hit."

Watson, 33, may be a trick-shot artist, but he's not a fluke. He has gotten better every year on Tour—he has won four times in his last 39 starts, including twice in 2011, and, remarkably, has become one of the game's most consistent performers, finishing no worse than 18th in eight starts this year. He also has proved to be a regular threat in the majors, including a playoff loss at the 2010 PGA Championship. Now he's the top American in the World Ranking, at No. 4. The Masters seems uniquely suited for Bubba Ball. As Jim Furyk said on Sunday, "The most important thing at Augusta is creativity, and Bubba can do that as well as anyone. Phil Mickelson has a great short game, dominant length and great creativity, and it's worked out well for him here."

Like Forrest Gump, Watson can be accidentally profound. He was asked in the champion's press conference how good he can be. "That's the best part about history—we don't know what's going to happen," he said. "We don't know the future. We don't know anything." Actually, we do know this: Golf just got a whole lot livelier.

Bubba's heroics capped a Masters that was defined by the improbable. Woods roared into town two weeks removed from his first PGA Tour victory since before he ran over a fire hydrant in November 2009. He arrived with a remade swing that had propelled him to the top of the Tour's total driving stat, which takes into account length and accuracy. But his preparation for the Masters had been complicated by the publication of a tell-all by his former swing coach Hank Haney, who wrote candidly of Tiger's fear of hitting the driver. Sure enough, Woods began his Masters with a snap-hook that settled on the edge of the 9th fairway. It was the big miss, and then he did it again on the next tee, two frightful swings that haunted him for the rest of the tournament. During a second-round 75, he plainly had no idea where the ball was going, and Woods sullied the Cathedral in the Pines by kicking a discarded nine-iron and swearing oaths audible to a national TV audience. ("Goddam!" was a particularly inspired choice on Good Friday.) Woods would finish 40th, his worst Masters showing as a pro, but he wasn't the week's only dud. Rory McIlroy had spent the preceding 12 months insisting he was not scarred by throwing away a four-stroke lead during last year's final round. That was easy to believe after he opened 71--69 to get within a stroke of the lead held by Fred Couples and Jason Dufner. But on Saturday, golf's boy wonder again seemed overwhelmed, shooting a front-nine 42 to blow himself out of the tournament. McIlroy is only 22, and it's comforting to think he'll have other opportunities, but you can lose the Masters only so many times before the hurt metastasizes. Ask Tom Weiskopf. Or Johnny Miller. Or Greg Norman. Or Ernie Els. All were once phenoms being fitted for green jackets, but they never got it done.

McIlroy's demise created a vacuum of star power on the third-round leader board until Mickelson blitzed the back nine in 30, which his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay, called the second best nine holes Mickelson has played, behind the iconic Sunday back-nine 31 at the 2004 Masters, when he won his first green jacket. Mickelson's 66 left him a stroke behind surprise leader Peter Hanson of Sweden, but that was considered a mere inconvenience; Sunday was to be a coronation as Mickelson would tie his idol, Arnold Palmer, with four Masters wins and supplant Woods as the king of Augusta. (Tiger has four green jackets too, but none since 2005.) The only words of caution came from Steve Loy, Mickelson's agent and onetime college coach. "I get nervous when they start handing out trophies when there's still 18 holes to go," Loy said.

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