Little Bubba, Big Bubba
There's a lot more to Bubba Watson than the guy who kills the driver. When he figures himself out, make way
'Where's Bubba?,' asks Felix Tambellini. The 2-year-old son of Nationwide Tour player Roger Tambellini has just seen his mother, Alexa, greet Bubba Watson's wife, Angie, in the parking lot of the TPC Scottsdale, sparking hopes that one of his favorite life-size characters won't be far behind. When Watson, 6-feet-3 and 180 pounds, saunters up in a T-shirt and shorts, a splendid splinter with long hair spilling out from a floppy bucket hat, Felix lights up. "Hi, Bubba!" he says. "Hi, Bubba!"
"Hey, buddy," answers Watson, as if addressing a peer, shaking Felix's hand. Moments later, walking to the clubhouse for lunch, Watson says, "Kids love me. I think it's mostly just a chance for them to say the word Bubba."
Mostly, perhaps. But children have a sixth sense for a kindred spirit.
At 30, Bubba Watson remains the PGA Tour's best representative of the little boy within. The game he plays is essentially the same one he began honing as a 6-year-old curving plastic golf balls with a 9-iron in the windy Florida Panhandle. Watson has never had a coach, a trainer, a nutritionist or a sport psychologist, and he's proud of it (though he admits to leaning on his caddie a lot). He has never had a golf lesson and says there's only one person in the world -- Tiger Woods -- whose advice he'd accept about the game. "I like to learn in my own way, on my own," he says. "I'm just all natural feel."
At the same time, Watson commandeers the most audacious form of Big Boy golf ever seen. He has led the PGA Tour in driving distance for three straight years (and leads again this year, averaging more than 313 yards) after topping the Nationwide Tour in 2005 with an average of 334. But what sets Watson apart is that he uses his clubhead speed to dramatically shape shots more than any player since the inception in the late 1990s of the straighter-flying, multilayer ball.
Watson paints wondrous, improbable, rococo arcs in the sky, from 20-yard hooks with a sand wedge to 50-yard slices with a driver. He's in the tradition of classic, two-way shot carvers like Jimmy Demaret, Chi Chi Rodriguez and most recently Corey Pavin, who was thought to be the last of the breed. Woods, of course, likes to move the ball both ways and vary his trajectories, but as one who has been intrigued enough with Watson to allow him into his practice-round rotation, Tiger acknowledges that even his strokes aren't as radical or daring as Watson's. "It's fun to see a guy who hits the ball that far, but it's the shots he can play that are phenomenal," says Woods. "The lines and shapes Bubba takes, sometimes I can't see them myself until he hits them."
Watson swings with an individuality and majesty that belongs with other mind-blowing athletic motions, like Tim (The Freak) Lincecum's pitching delivery or sprinter Usain Bolt's stride. Watson's extreme extension is Nicklausian going back and Hoganesque going through. And as Bubba's arms drop from their skyscraping position into the slot, his lower body fires and rotates with an aggression that would be unsustainable in tournament golf without otherworldly eye-hand coordination. Sure, purists can point to an excess of movement, which undoubtedly contributes to Watson's problems with distance control and overall consistency, but for sheer sound and fury, it's the most exciting and interesting swing on tour.
"Bubba can swing the way he does because his whole process is out there -- where he wants the ball to go," says Sean Foley, a swing coach who works with several PGA Tour players, including Sean O'Hair and Hunter Mahan. "So many players, their process is in here -- all about some part of their swing. The freedom is lost because they don't even know where they're going."
Watson's genius is reflected in empirical data, namely, his freakish launch conditions. Using a 44½-inch driver with 6.5 degrees of loft, Watson generates a clubhead speed of 122 miles per hour (about 10 mph faster than the tour average), and his ball speed is 194 mph (exceeding the tour average by almost 30 mph). But where Watson is really off the charts is in his combination of launch angle (16 degrees; the tour average is about 12) and spin rate (an absurdly low 1,600 to 1,800 revolutions per minute; the tour average is 2,700). He is the epitome of the titanium era's mantra for maximum distance: high launch, low spin.
Greg Norman, by consensus the best long driver with balata and persimmon, sought out Watson to be his partner at the 2007 Shark Shootout, where they finished second. "Bubba's greatest strength is that he's got a beautiful ball flight with every club, from sand wedge to driver," says Norman. "That's what pure golf is all about."
There are numerous stories of Watson's shots: huge blasts (including a 422-yard bomb on the Nationwide Tour in 2004 that remains the longest ever recorded on that tour), driven greens, amazing escapes from trouble. On tight holes and in tight situations, his go-to shot is a physics-defying frozen rope of a low fade that Watson calls his "dink cut," even though it usually travels 300 yards. The anecdote that might say the most about his improvisational virtuosity occurred last year during the tour stop at Colonial. Playing with his wife and his caddie, Ted Scott, in the afternoon at nearby Vaquero, a big, challenging course where several tour players practice, Watson used only a 4-wood for every stroke, including putts, and shot 77 from the 7,000-yard-plus tips.