The last time we saw him wearing green on the final day of a major, the roller coaster crashed.
But Sunday, on one of his game’s most historic venues, what was lost with one bad swing less than two years earlier was recaptured with the hack of a lifetime.
Gerry Lester Watson, Jr. grew up in the small Florida panhandle town of Milton, in a part of the country known as the “Redneck Riviera.” True to his roots in the Deep South, Gerry, Jr. simply became known as “Bubba” at an early age after football player Bubba Smith. Perhaps coincidentally, perhaps not, Milton is also the hometown of fellow PGA Tour player Thomas “Boo” Weekly.
Bubba and Boo on the Redneck Riviera.
While that all sounds like a headline writer’s dream, Milton, Fla. was anything but. According to the United States Census Bureau, Milton’s median income is about $10,000 below the national average and their poverty rate hovers around 17 percent.
In other words, growing up in Milton was no picnic. But it is also the place where faith and family run as deep as the nearby Gulf of Mexico. And while there was never enough money to pay for extra things like golf lessons, the Watson family had an overabundance of love for God and each other.
In the years to come, Bubba would need to lean hard on the former to help him cope with the latter.
While playing golf at the University of Georgia, Watson met his future wife, women’s basketball star Angie Ball, who would go on to play professionally in Europe, in the 2000 Summer Olympics for her native Canada, and briefly in the WNBA. As Ball’s career was ending because of injuries, her husband’s was just getting off the ground. But it was a painstaking process.
On the PGA Tour, Bubba enjoyed limited early success, but certainly nothing that would prepare him for the 2010 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
After all, Watson had only made the cut five previous times in major championships. His lone career win had come two months earlier at the Traveler’s Championship in a playoff over Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank. But what made Watson so memorable while at Whistling Straits was the openness in which he bore his soul to the golf world for the first time.
“My dad has cancer,” Watson explained after his first round 4-under par 68 that hot August day. “We have been battling that all year. I didn’t tell many people because it’s really nobody’s business. I’m not here to get sympathy; I’m here to play golf.”
That wasn’t the only thing weighing Watson down. Not only was his father dying from incurable throat cancer, his beloved Angie had also recently had the scare of a lifetime as well.
“So a day before Christmas, my wife went to the hospital when I was in Pensacola seeing my dad for Christmas,” Watson continued. “She had a headache. And she’s a professional athlete who had surgery on knees, shoulder, everywhere possible. So when she wants to go to the hospital I know something’s wrong. And the doctor there said that she had a tumor in her pituitary gland.”
It was Watson’s father, who would lose his battle with cancer two months later, that made him leave his bedside altogether to tend to his wife’s every need.
As it turned out, a second opinion disputed the original analysis, instead diagnosing Angie with an enlarged pituitary gland, which partially explains her 6-foot-4 frame. Her condition is now under control with medication.
“The first doctor told us the wrong diagnosis, but we didn’t know that at the time, so it was scary,” Watson concluded, wiping away his tears. “Why do I want to go hit a golf ball around? That’s really where the emotions come from. It’s kind of like that now.”
Three days later, Watson was embroiled in a three-hole playoff with Martin Kaymer for the Wannamaker Trophy. After trading birdies on the first two holes, Watson and Kaymer were tied heading into the final playoff hole, back on No. 18, a daunting 489-yard par-4 that featured a mind-numbing 96 bunkers.
Much like Sunday’s playoff at Augusta, Watson and his playing partner erred off the tee, landing in the rough.
But unlike Sunday in East-Central Georgia; two years ago in East-Central Wisconsin Watson’s approach wasn’t the shot of his dreams, but rather a nightmare that cascaded into the creek below the green when the 6-iron he tried to carry the 206-yards he needed “just came out dead,” he said dejectedly afterwards.
But he still went for it. Instead of laying up, Watson played like the way we all would like to think we would have. And afterwards, he made no apologies about his roughneck style.
“Before you ask, if I had to do it over again, I would hit it every day,” Watson told the assembled media. “I play to win a golf tournament. I don’t play to lay up and hopefully make par and tie or win. I went for the win and I’d do it over again.”
That approach didn’t win him the 2010 PGA Championship. But it won him a legion of beer-drinking, cigar-smoking, weekend duffers that looked at the kid named Bubba and at least on some level identified with him.
As it turned out Sunday at Augusta, the boy named Bubba was true to his word. After hooking his tee shot into the woods, Watson came up with one of the most remarkable shots in Masters history.
“Where I stood from, when the ball came out, it looked like a curve ball,” playoff competitor Louis Oosthuizen said afterwards. “Unbelievable shot. That shot he hit definitely won him the tournament.”
And just like that, Bubba Watson was donning the famed Masters green jacket, striking a blow to almost everything we have been taught about the game. Without a single lesson growing up and eschewing such standard practices as a swing coach and video analysis still to this day, Watson became golf’s everyman.
The last 13 majors have seen 13 different champions. That unprecedented streak has opened up the game of golf to future stars such as Keegan Bradley, Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell, and others. For Bubba Watson, his win helps put him on the map as a talent to be reckoned with.
But his uncompromising style, devotion to his faith and family, and home-spun charm make him Fifth Avenue’s dream. After all, the one indulgence he afforded himself with his winnings up until this point was his January purchase of the original General Lee car used in the 1970s television show “Dukes of Hazzard” for $110,000.
While the green jacket is a perfect fit for Watson, somehow he still seemed uncomfortable with his newfound fame while wearing golf’s most sought after garment. Among the members at stately Augusta National, there seemed to be a sense that he would have just been happy to take the gallery across Washington Street for a celebratory beer at Robbie’s Sports Bar.
And while his father was not there to watch him win, the sight of a sobbing champion hugging his mother tugged at all of our heartstrings; none more so than Angie, who couldn’t make the trip because their infant son, Caleb, is still too young to travel.
But that’s okay. Someday, the old man will have one whale of a story to tell him, tears and all.