The Ballad Of Bubba Watson

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On paper, you’d be hard-pressed to find a golfer with more endearing characteristics than those attached to Gerry Lester Watson, Jr. from 1978-2012.

Hailing from the tiny village of Bagdad, Florida, “Bubba,” a nickname handed down to him by his father, flaunts a self-taught golf swing as dynamic as his thick southern drawl and as explosive as his hometown’s namesake. In a sport rife with righties who draw, Bubba’s a leftie who fades. In a sport full of textbook, professionally-coached swings, Bubba’s heel raising, hell-raising cadence makes him a fugitive in the eyes of the game’s traditionalists. But, opposite to how Outkast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad” received critical acclaim against the public’s impartiality, this outcast’s Bombs over Bagdad are so mesmerizingly launched that golf fans gaze awestruck and inspired at each unexampled 310+ yard drive while professional commentators note that his swing, while great, does sacrifice accuracy for power. (Author’s note: I spent far too long trying to get that contrived joke to work. I don’t think I succeeded.)

After joining the PGA Tour for the 2006 season, Bubba would go on to win the driving title four out of his first seven years on tour. Those three years he didn’t win? Runner-up.

Off the course, Bubba’s story gets even better. Not only was he known (as he still is) for being extremely charitable to faith-based, military-focused, and other types of non-profits — sometimes at the sake of his own dignity…

Bubba was also an immaculate entertainer. A quick scour of his YouTube channel reveals a series of trick shot videos Bubba posted between late 2009 and early 2010, ranging from the bizarre…

to the tame…

to the genuinely impressive.

All featuring Bubba’s signature sense of goofy, off-the-wall, “I don’t give a shit” humor. #urwelcome.

Though deeply affected by the passing of his father and namesake Gerry in October 2010, Bubba would go on to win two tour events, the Farmers Insurance Open and the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, within the next seven months.

Then, in 2012, just a short while after Bubba and his wife Angie adopted their first son, Caleb, Bubba hit a 52-degree from the shit on the second playoff hole at The Masters.

No amount of John Brenkus explanations will ever make it so I fully understand how Bubba’s ball did what it did. Bubba’s 10th (or 20th, I guess) at Augusta, in my eyes, is the closest thing we have to Tiger’s 16th. Except, unlike in Tiger’s case, it didn’t merely highlight the career of a firmly established major champion — it created one. His post-Masters success was not immediate — Bubba would not go on to win another tournament until his first Northern Trust Open victory in February 2014. But after just three tour wins in his first six seasons on tour, Bubba now has five in his last three, including his second Northern Trust Open win last weekend.

Let’s go back to 2012, though. Back when this was the people’s impression of Bubba.

Back when he won his first major. Back when he was known as a philanthropist. An adoptive and loving father. A devout Christian. A goofy good ol’ boy making lighthearted videos for the amusement of his fans. A self-made man. A long bomber. An ambassador of the game.

Is this how you thought things would end up?




The boos on 16 at the Waste Management are only the latest notable manifestation of widespread Bubba hate, and only came to fruition as a result of compounded past events paired with a Bubba-induced trigger.

How did we get here? To me, the answer to that question lies in a quote Bubba gave after winning his first Masters in 2012.

“The thing is, golf is not my everything.”

At the time, the quote seemed innocuous — the candid admission of a golfer who doesn’t take himself, or the game, too seriously. It made him seem relatable. Down-to-earth. Sincere. But as time went on, and his career progressed, and his actions were broadcast, we began to learn more and more what he meant by that statement. And some of us began to take it as an affront to our very beliefs about who Bubba is and how we should feel about him.

Do you love him, or do you hate him? Do you find his antics harmless, or damaging?

Is the story of Bubba Watson that of a crude, spoiled man who only looks out for number one, or that of a normal dude vilified for simply caring less about himself than we do?

I think it’s a little of both.

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I am by no means a golf insider. I watch the majors and a few other tournaments each year, and keep up with the output of various golf media outlets in the interim. In that sense, I represent the average golf fan.

One of the pros of that, in terms of unravelling the mystery that is Bubba Watson, is that I am pretty in-tune with how the media has portrayed Bubba, and how the public has subsequently reacted. I know that if most people were to pick their three least favorite things about Bubba, it would be that he yells at his caddie Ted Scott, he skipped out on the long drive contest at the 2014 PGA Championship, and he only played at this year’s Waste Management to make his sponsors happy. And I know that the public relished the opportunity to lambast him for each of those perceived misdeeds.

One of the cons, however, is that I miss out on the ability to maintain a sense of self-efficacy when it comes to forming my opinion about Bubba. I don’t have this running impression of Bubba that ebbs and flows as I process each and every tee shot he hits, ball mark he fixes, and club he twirls. All I have are my responses to the media I consume. My thoughts on the thoughts of others. The opinion of Bubba that I’ve formed isn’t really an opinion at all, but rather a conjecture I’ve convinced myself I arrived at on my own accord.

With that being said, let’s get to the case against Bubba Watson. Unlike with Tiger Woods, there was not one singular event that shaped the public’s perception of Bubba, but rather a combination of complementary crucibles.

Those who avidly follow golf knew of Bubba’s proclivity to blow up on the course long before I even knew his name. Just take a look at this on-the-course incident from back in 2008.

This incident saw little coverage, as Bubba Watson apologized profusely right after the completion of his round to “everybody in the tournament.”

“I’d love to be a role model. I make mistakes. My mistake was I got angry today,” Bubba said.

It’s not the last time Bubba would do so, and it’s certainly not the most iconic.

That prestigious title belongs to the event that many would say started it all. If Bubba Watson were to have a Tiger Woods moment, and I mean that in the bad way, it would probably be the highly-publicized comments he made to his caddie, Ted Scott, during the final round of the 2013 Travelers Championship.

To say the media ate it up would be a criminal understatement. Where the titles employed to drive traffic to Bubba’s outbursts used to be informative, like “Bubba Watson Apologizes for Elkington Incident,” and didn’t include visuals of the event (though to be fair, they were much harder to come by back then), they were now straight clickbait centered around media.

Bubba Watson cursing, having meltdown in the rain at Valhalla

Watch Bubba Watson’s Latest Outburst at Hero World Challenge


Hell, I even fell into this trap when I covered that last one. “Bubba Watson Hits Bad Shot, Yells At Inanimate Ground For Causing It” isn’t a headline that’s going to win me any industry awards.

All of this is not to say that I, nor the people that wrote those other sensationalized pieces, are part of the problem — the majority of today’s media, in my experience, consists of impartial journalists covering the side of the story they think their audience wants to see. I’m merely trying to point out that when you read something about Bubba, or any celebrity, really, it was probably written by someone with 1) less knowledge of the situation than you probably gave them credit for (hey, I’m Jared, how ya doin’?), and/or 2) ulterior motives (a production quota, traffic goals, etc.) that influenced the direction they took.

Of course Bubba’s very public beratement of Ted Scott isn’t the only grievance people have with him, as I mentioned earlier. To get a better feel for why so many people have an irreconcilable disdain for Bubba, I spoke to Chris Solomon. Chris is a co-founder of No Laying Up, a popular golf entertainment and lifestyle brand, and the source of arguably the most outspoken Bubba hate on the internet. They are the originators of the popular #PrayForTedScott hashtag, and were one of, if not the most vocal proponents of Bubba’s eventual booing at the Waste Management.


That is why I was not surprised by his response when I asked him for his thoughts on Bubba.

“On the surface, he looks exactly like the kind of guy I would root for,” Solomon said, referencing Watson’s impeccable drives and how he isn’t your typical bland tour pro.

“It took a while for me to see past ‘Bubba,’ and to see the real Gerry Lester Watson, Jr. He portrays himself as this ‘man of the people,’ fun loving, free spirit guy, but he’s anything but,” remarked Solomon.

“He’ll curse about the playing conditions (like he did at the 2014 PGA Championship), then hide behind religion when talking to the press. He’ll say he’s only playing an event to make his sponsors happy, then retract the statements when the press gets outraged. His fans either choose [to] ignore this side of him and take him for what he is, or are simply unaware that this exists (the latter being the more likely). For myself and many others, we can see straight through the facade.”

Solomon claims that it’s not just he in the golf world who despises Bubba, but that it’s a fairly widespread phenomenon.

“What I find entertaining is that many tour pros are willing to put their feelings about him out there on twitter (if you dig a little bit). They often aren’t shy about ‘liking’ some of the many anti-Bubba tweets you’ll find on my feed, or even retweeting some of them,” Solomon said. “There’s a reason why Bubba was voted as the guy that tour players would be least likely to help in a fight.”

When asked what the most Bubba Watson-y Bubba Watson moment he could think of was (can you tell I have a journalism degree?), Solomon remarked that while “it almost feels heedless to just select one example,” the events surrounding the 2014 PGA Championship at Valhalla took the cake.

Before Bubba was the focus of the aforementioned “Bubba Watson cursing, having meltdown in the rain at Valhalla” article, he was the subject of an even larger controversy. Solomon believes that when you combine these two incidents, we saw the completion of the anti-Bubba movement started by Ted Scott’s club selection at the 2013 Travelers.

“For many people, this is when the tide started to turn against Bubba, and social media erupted. A lot of fans got to see firsthand what we had been talking about for a long time, and the resistance against the evil power was sprung to life,” Solomon said.

That incident? Bubba’s response to the PGA reviving the long drive contest during the Tuesday pre-tournament practice round.

“It’s on the par-5 10th hole, which is a hole in which every player in the field is going to hit driver every single time. The winner of the contest gets $25,000 to donate to a charity of their choice. Everyone was having fun with it,” Solomon remarked.

Padraig Harrington did the Happy Gilmore. Rory McIlroy wasn’t even going to play the back nine on Tuesday, but came over to hit a drive for the fans. The players yucked it up with the crowd all day long, and overall it was a huge success. But not for the free swinging, fun loving, longest hitter on tour, Bubba Watson.”

“I’m here to win a championship. I’m not here to goof around,” Bubba Watson said.

Solomon was not too amused with that quote.


“They hadn’t even finished calling his name before he waved a 3-iron down the fairway to the shock of the fans in attendance,” Solomon said. “The same guy that falls back on his Christianity every chance he gets just willingly bypassed a chance to win $25,000 for charity, and managed to draw attention to what many people already knew about him: he’s an asshole.”

Or is he?

***




***

The case for Bubba Watson. Even though legions of Bubba haters out there would adamantly deny its existence, it is a thing. And it’s much more complicated than the case against him.

Those in favor of Bubba Watson don’t seek to legitimize all of his actions; that would be a battle up an insurmountable hill. The case in favor of Bubba Watson is moreso an attempt to help people understand why he is the way he is.

I reached out to Golf Digest Associate Editor Stephen Hennessey for his thoughts on Watson.

“Bubba’s a little misunderstood. He’s one of the most fun players to watch when he’s playing well,” Hennessey said. “But fans hear stories about his hypersensitivity and, at times, abrasiveness, which might be off-putting to some.”

You’re perceiving Bubba Watson correctly. You’ve seen his outbursts, his brashness, and his bluntness. You just misinterpret the “why.” That is the leg on which Bubba sympathizers stand.

Hennessey directed me to a column Jaime Diaz wrote for Golf Digest titled “Being Bubba,” which I highly, highly recommend checking out. It does a better job of explaining the factors in Bubba’s life that have molded him — such as medical issues, behind-the-scenes controversies, and his relationship with his father and Ted Scott — than I could ever hope to do with the resources I have at hand (namely, a Twitter account with followers expecting crass poop jokes, and the connections equivalent of a lone business card holding the contact information of an Olive Garden manager six states away). Go into reading it with as open a mind about Bubba as you can, and see where you come out.

When I asked Hennessey for a story that summarizes Bubba as a player/personality, the example he chose was the same as Solomon’s, but taken in a completely different direction.

“I think him skipping the long drive contest at the PGA two years ago got blown way out of proportion. It’s almost like people look for reasons to pile on when it comes to Bubba.”

Let’s take a closer look at Bubba’s comments regarding the 2014 PGA Championship long drive contest.

His famous quote, “I’m here to win a championship. I’m not here to goof around,” was given to Kelly Elbin in an interview that, to my knowledge, was not videotaped. That means all we have to go off of are the quotes and annotations attributed to Bubba. Here they are:

From PGA.com:

Q. There’s been a lot of chatter on different avenues about your take on the 10th and the long drive. Do you find it surprising that you would be accused of taking yourself too seriously?

BUBBA WATSON: Me? Yeah, that’s surprising. I am.

I’m here to win a championship. I’m not here to goof around (laughing).

No, it’s just ‑‑ there’s a couple things that just rubbed me the wrong way, and so ‑‑

Q. In what way?

BUBBA WATSON: I just see it, if it’s going to be a contest, make it where you could participate and not participate. Calling your name on a Tuesday of a practice round, it just seems funny to me, just seems hokey to me, so I just didn’t.

When you saw that quote plastered all over the internet, you didn’t see the part where Bubba laughed afterwards, and then followed it up with “no,” did you? Nor did you see the actual reasoning he gave for why he decided to not hit driver.

While some may claim that Bubba’s laugh was just him being snide about the whole ordeal — “in typical, Bubba fashion,” they would probably say — I don’t think that’s the case.

Check out this quote Bubba gave after his Masters victory in 2012.

From The New York Times:

“I just play golf, fun-loving Bubba, just try to have fun and goof around,” Watson said, adding, “Hopefully, I keep having the passion to play golf and keep doing what I’m doing.”

Is it not possible that Bubba was sarcastically referencing this past quote of his in this interview, and, as Hennessey said, golf fans and the media alike were just looking for any excuse to write an anti-Bubba headline? That it was all a poorly-made reference to a past quote, one that, at the time, only served to help Bubba’s image?

Until that interview’s audio or video gets released, only witnesses to that interview truly know. All we do know is that Bubba just simply doesn’t care enough to correct what you have to say about him when it’s wrong. Here’s that PGA interview again, continuing on from where I left off.

Q. And in a broader sense, do you worry at all or ‑‑

BUBBA WATSON: I worry all the time.

Q. Let me rephrase that. Do you care at all what people think of you?

BUBBA WATSON: Truthfully, no. Because the way I’m trying to live my life, read the Bible, follow the Bible; I can’t worry about ‑‑ no matter what I do, no matter if I win every single tournament, half the world is going to love me and half the world is going to hate me no matter what. You can’t impress everybody and you can’t make everybody happy. It’s hard enough trying to make my wife happy, so I don’t need to worry about other people being happy.

I care about what you think, though, because you write big articles (smiling).

Bubba doesn’t care what you think of him. Bubba doesn’t need to worry about you being happy, either. Because you only know him for his golf. And golf is not his everything.

***


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Make no mistake — even those that hate Bubba, like Chris Solomon, are at the very least entertained by him.

“I would be lying if I said [I wish Bubba wasn’t out there swinging]. Golf is deficient on interesting characters that move the needle, and at minimum that’s what he is. Also, he gives me a lot of really easy material, so for that I’m thankful,” Solomon joked. “I’m more likely to tune in when he’s in contention, as are many fans at home.”

That’s why we’re in the position we’re in. People who hate Bubba don’t want him to stop playing golf — in reality, that’s the only part of him they like. Rather, they want him to stop being Bubba. To stop with the verbal outbursts, the perceived hypocrisies, the shtick.

Or do they? If Bubba were no longer Bubba, would he still be as popular as he is? How much of what you know to be Bubba is himself, and how much of what you know to be Bubba is golf?

And, most importantly, who cares?

He’s not going to change for you, because he doesn’t care what you have to say. Because you are not his everything. Because golf is not his everything.

Because no one thing is his everything.

Back in 2012, before he won his first Masters, and before he was a household name, Bubba tweeted this:


His eventual response?

1. God
2. Wife
3. Family
4. Helping others
5. Golf

I imagine the organization of this list might look a little bit different now — Bubba has since added his two children into his life.

The notable exclusions, though? You. Me. All of us.

Therein lies the unity Bubba has created.

We can think whatever we want about him. He won’t be thinking about us.

Image via mooinblack / Shutterstock.com, design via Connor Davis. Follow him on Instagram.

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