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'Golf was killing me'

In new book, Bubba Watson opens up about struggles he once kept to himself

November 02, 2021
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Early in Bubba Watson’s new memoir, he tells the story of stepping on a scale and being mortified by the reading. The problem wasn’t how much weight he had put on, but how much he had lost.

Some 50 pounds lighter than his heaviest, and 30 points less than when he was playing at his peak, Watson at 162 pounds was seeing the precise physical toll severe anxiety was taking on him.

“Golf was killing me,” he writes.

Because the crisis of Watson’s weight was kept quiet outside of the golfer’s inner circle, some misinterpreted his transformation as a positive. And therein lies one of his story’s larger central themes: the disconnect between what the public thought it knew about the two-time Masters champion, and the turmoil he was experiencing inside.

“People would say, ‘Oh, you look great, and I’d think ‘No,’” Watson said in an interview at the PGA Tour’s New York offices on Tuesday. “I wouldn’t say anything, but I’d want to say, ‘No, there’s something going on. I don’t want to look this way.’”

While the title of Watson’s new book, Up and Down, reflects more than the fluctuations on his bathroom scale, the episode did prove to be a turning point in his willingness to expand on his inner demons: his racing mind, his struggle to maintain a certain status on tour and his resistance to being defined as a golfer and nothing more. It was only when he began opening up to others about some of those struggles that the weight began to come back.

“When the weight was coming back, I thought, Hey, I talked to you, and then I talked to you, and then it’s like, you know what, now I’m going to fess up and tell the world where I’m at,” Watson said. “It was freeing to me by sharing so now I was like, ‘I’ll share whatever. Let’s talk about it.’”

To be sure, there are elements of Up and Down, written with veteran journalist Don Yaeger, that fit the mold of a classic golf star biography. Watson writes about the genesis of his homegrown swing as a boy in Bagdad, Fla.; about the practice rounds he played early in his career with Tiger Woods; and about the defining shot of his career: an improbable hooked wedge from the trees in a playoff that set up his first Masters title in 2012 (“When I got to the ball, I knew instantly that this was a shot built for me,” he writes.)

He also goes into detail about his relationship with his wife, Angie, a former professional basketball player he met in school at the University of Georgia, their adoption of son, Caleb, and daughter, Dakota, and his devotion to all three. (This is apparent beyond the pages of the book. On Tuesday, Watson was animated talking about Caleb’s first tackle football game, where he confessed to breaking the rules shooting video on his phone while also working the chains.)

But those are, on whole, easier topics to cover. More difficult was delving into some of his career’s unflattering moments. Watson discusses the times he clashed with the media, with longtime caddie Ted Scott (with whom he recently parted amicably) and with other players. When a 2015 ESPN player poll exposed him as especially unpopular among his peers, Watson couldn’t pretend to be surprised, especially after a fellow player and friend, Ben Crane, had recently warned him about his reputation.

“I’ll admit it, it was a gut punch,” he writes. “While I would like to say that poll eventually led to my being regularly tagged as a ‘divisive’ player on the tour, it wasn’t the poll’s fault. After all, the ESPN poll was a reflection of some of the things Ben Crane had been trying to warn me about months before. There was some truth to it.”

In hindsight, Watson says many of his problems traced to not being honest with others. Although he would often make cursory reference to having “issues” even in press conferences, it was often said jokingly. Especially after he won the Masters a second time in 2014, he continued to try to cultivate the image of an accessible, fun-loving player. The more he was portrayed otherwise, the further he withdrew.

“Seeing the negative press made me hold it in even more, made me madder,” he said. “But it’s not one moment in life that makes you blow up or lose it. It’s childhood moments. It’s all these other moments.”

Not until 2017, when he recognized his weight had dipped perilously, did Watson confront some of his emotional struggles directly. At the time, especially since he had lost his father to cancer seven years earlier, he thought he was in physical danger. But it soon became apparent that anxiety was the culprit and that he could no longer afford to bottle it up.

“Ultimately, I accepted that it was my mind and not my body that was causing the stress, anxiety, pain and weight loss,” he writes. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say I was depressed. I never thought about it that way. It was just an out-of-control mind, racing with fear and anxiety.”

Watson talks about his new book in the PGA Tour's New York office.

Since then, Watson said he embraced the importance of opening up. Still, the idea of writing about it in a book didn’t seem feasible until the onset of the pandemic, when he had the advantage of more time—and the conversation around mental health began to gain volume. Which is not to say he planned it this way.

“We’re not smart enough to say we knew the pandemic was going to make people feel a certain way,” he said. “I can’t even lie to you and say that. This was literally we just had time to sit around the house and do this, so that’s really how it came about.

“I said, I only want to write a book if it’s going to help people, and I’m not talking about a golf swing. I don’t care whether you three-putt. I three-putt enough.”