Keeping Score

Watson takes unorthodox fling at golf

If you haven’t seen Bubba Watson playing much golf this fall, it’s because you’ve been looking for him on the wrong style of course

NASSAU, Bahamas – If you haven’t seen Bubba Watson playing much golf this fall, it’s because you’ve been looking for him on the wrong style of course. He’s been playing disc golf, lots of it, back at home in the Florida Panhandle.

“You’re outside, you’re walking, you’re in the woods,” Watson said at the Hero World Challenge (scores), where he tied for 12th Sunday in his first competitive appearance since the Ryder Cup. (He also will play this week’s QBE Shootout in Naples, Fla., where he’ll team with Harold Varner III.) “It’s easy. My 6-year-old boy can go out there and play. Come to a [real] golf course and he can’t really play. It’s too hard for him. He’s trying to figure it out. He sees Dad doing it, and he’s trying to figure it out. But he can easily throw one.”

Asked if he gets recognized when he is flinging discs, Watson retorts that there are a billion people around the world who don’t have any idea who Bubba Watson is. There also are plenty who do. Watson turned 40 last month – something that should make all of us feel old – and in a terrific 2017-18 season rebounded to win three times on the PGA Tour, running his career victory total to 12. He says he only ever aimed to get to 10 victories; everything above that is gravy.

Bubba Watson
Bubba Watson finds that off-season golf can involve more than a club and ball.

A year ago, Watson says he sat down and contemplated quitting the Tour. No more competitive golf. For real. His game hadn’t been very good, and his health was a real concern. He dropped a good deal of weight, was razor-thin, and didn’t know why. Surely he could stay busy with his growing business interests in Pensacola: A candy shop, a car dealership, and ownership in a minor-league baseball team.

Watson never did fully disclose what he’d been going through in 2017, when he made 22 starts, had only four top-10 finishes and didn’t make it past the second round of the FedEx Cup playoffs. At Albany last week, he would say only that he has been told by doctors that he has “mental issues.” As he glances back across 2018, he points to his early-season victory at storied Riviera (his third victory there) as one of his most significant triumphs in a career that includes two green jackets from Augusta. And it meant a lot for him to share it with longtime caddie Ted Scott, too.

“There’s a lot of things going on healthy-wise, and mental-wise,” Watson said. “I’m never healed. We all have issues. I cry. It’s been a while since I cried after a victory, and that one was so emotional. I literally sat down in a room and had talked about quitting, talked about never playing again professionally – well, except the Masters.

“Teddy went through the struggles, too. He’s a great friend of mine. We talk about everything. There’s not one thing I’d keep a secret from him, or him from me, no matter how bad it is, or how dark it is in our lives. For us to come back as a team, as a friendship, it was very emotional for us. I think it was my 10th win, and I got two after that.”

Watson used to state that his career goals were to win 10 times, find a way into the World Golf Hall of Fame, and captain a Ryder Cup team. As goals are concerned, he'll do some adjusting. Now that he has 12 victories, he wants to collect at least three more; that potential 15-victory/two-major combination is at least worthy of hall consideration. And while he said he’d never turn down a Ryder Cup captaincy if asked, he also believes the position has changed. Instead of a celebratory role for a great career, being captain now has evolved into sitting on a hot seat, with a losing captain held under high scrutiny for every little decision. So much for the event being a friendly exhibition.

“Look, we should be growing the game here,” Watson said. “We shouldn’t be hating on each other – I hate you this week. No, you don’t. We’re all good friends. I think we have to look at it differently.”

Two months ago near Paris, Watson stood on the 14th green at Le Golf National on Sunday in tears. Contrary to European fans thinking he was upset that he’d just been thumped by Henrik Stenson, 5 and 4, and sad that the U.S. was getting drummed in an eventual 17½-10½ loss, the tears represented something much bigger than the competition. The biggest spectacle this side of the Masters fills Watson’s heart for a special reason: The 2010 Ryder Cup in Wales was the last event that his dad, Gerry Watson, saw Bubba play before cancer took him. Bubba explained this week that Gerry Watson was a proud Vietnam veteran who carried a piece of shrapnel inside his back, a keepsake from a grenade that exploded near him in wartime.

Gerry Watson always dreamed that his left-handed son would play Major League Baseball, maybe pitch, and was disappointed when his son chose golf instead. The father went full-circle with the game, first hating it, then loving it when he got to see his son’s success. When his father died, before Bubba and his mom, Molly, fulfilled Gerry’s wish to be cremated, Bubba made sure that the piece of shrapnel, once a few inches long but shrunken through the years, was removed. It sits in a jar next to Gerry’s folded American flag in a special spot at Molly’s house in Milton, Fla., and remains a big curiosity every time young Caleb Watson visits his grandmother.

So, the tears in France had little to do with the result of one singles match.

“I hugged my mom and said, ‘This could be the last time,’ ” Watson said. “The last time for me as a player, the last time for our family. The Ryder Cup meant more than golf, more than winning or losing, because it was the last time my dad watched me play. … That was the most memorable moment [of 2018]. I was trying not to look at the crowd, because I was crying. They were like, Oh, he’s crying because he got beat. No, I was crying because this could be the last time ever.”

Watson started this year ranked 89th in the world, and has climbed all the way back to No. 17. Logically, he’d be in the mix to play on Tiger Woods’ Presidents Cup team that will visit Royal Melbourne in Australia a year from now. He wants very much to be there at Woods' side – but as an assistant captain.

“I really feel like, for me personally, I have more enjoyment serving 12 guys than playing,” Watson said. “I know that sounds weird …”

To some, perhaps. But there’s always more to Bubba Watson than people standing outside those gallery ropes ever really see. In a sport that can deliver a lot of sameness, Watson certainly is one of a kind. With the last putt having been holed at the Hero, and weeks to go before the Sentry Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, keep an eye out: Bubba Watson soon could be turning up at a disc course near you.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62

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