When Greatness Calls
Continued (page 2 of 2)
It might seem premature to say about a player who has only won four tournaments, but strictly in terms of style and ability, Watson is in that class. In fact, Bubba might have more shots that his peers can't hit than any golfer in memory. It's why for a few years Tiger Woods made him a practice-round partner.
One observer who has seen them all, instructor John Jacobs, is impressed.
"If golf is controlling ball flight -- and I firmly believe that it is -- then Bubba is one of the best I've ever seen," said the 87-year-old Jacobs from his home in England. "He always knows exactly what he is doing to the ball, and that's the mark of a great player. Yes, his swing is unorthodox, but I wouldn't change him at all. I would never change him until he plays badly. He is ever so much better than he looks. Believe me, there's genius there."
It's clear that to win more, Watson will have to improve his putting. He has always languished in the bottom of the PGA Tour's putting statistics, never ranking better than 82nd in the all-important "strokes gained" category since 2006. This year he is 161st, and at the Masters, he was just good enough on the greens, his 120 putts 13 more than the lowest total for the week.
The iffy putting, the self-made physical phenomena of a swing, the power and imagination to dramatically curve the ball, all are reminiscent of the player Watson is most like, Couples.
They also share mercurial temperaments. A cautionary tale for Watson was the way Couples was put off by new demands on him after winning the 1992 Masters and reaching No. 1.
The head game is Watson's biggest challenge. In competition, he admits to being jumpy and moody. Little things, like slow play, can set him off. A YouTube favorite was his 2008 meltdown with Steve Elkington, "Veterans can kiss my ass." Such states of mind are the main reason Watson never won a pro tournament anywhere until the 2010 Travelers Championship and why he generally hasn't been an effective closer when leading or in contention after 54 holes.
"Bubba's putting mechanics are actually very good," says Matt Rollins, Ping's tour manager. "His problem has always been just getting nervous. As he's learned to get comfortable in the moment -- keeping the negative thoughts out -- he's putted much better. He's definitely improved when he's really under the gun, and he proved it at Augusta."
Watson has never been diagnosed with ADD, but he doesn't dispute having the condition. According to Dr. Edward Hallowell, a leading expert on ADD who loves watching Watson, the condition is an important source of the golfer's strengths and weaknesses. "The shots that Bubba can see, the unique way he solves what the course presents, is a classic example of an ADD mind at its best," says Hallowell. "But the distractibility -- the nervousness and the irritability -- untreated, comes with the package. If Bubba learns to harness the power of his mind, I believe he'll become a dramatically greater golfer."
Watson has chosen not to seek professional evaluation, deciding, as he does with his golf swing, to work it out himself. "Bubba doesn't want to rely on other people with his golf," says Rollins. "He doesn't want to get in a position where he's making phone calls to feel good about his game." Watson definitely achieved an outward serenity at the Masters, perhaps stemming from the contentment of being a new father on Sunday. He didn't let a first hole three-putt bother him, and he remained in the moment the entire back nine and in the playoff, especially during a clutch run of four straight birdies.
Watson's ultimate place in the game will come down to what he wants it to be. Sometimes, like when he sought out Woods to play practice rounds, he seems to desire greatness. More often, he has low-balled his ambition. But his confident performance at Augusta and in the revealing days that followed last week suggest a different Bubba is emerging.
If so, and Watson does become a true star, it will be a gift to the game, and his most gratifying "You're welcome" ever.