NEW PROVIDENCE, Bahamas — Bubba Watson’s golf career is in semi-purgatory. On one hand, he’s just one year removed from a three-win PGA Tour season and was ranked inside the world’s top 20 players as recently as May. On the other, he’s 41 years old and had more missed more cuts (six) than top-10 finishes (three) in his 2018-’19 campaign, which ended two stops short of the Tour Championship and saw him drop to his current World Ranking of No. 41.
All this to say: the two-time major winner would seem like a legitimate candidate to be a vice-captain on this year’s Presidents Cup team. With a standout playing career, plenty of team-play experience and one vice-captaincy under his belt—at the 2016 Ryder Cup, when he wasn’t selected for a captain’s pick despite finishing ninth on the points list and ranking seventh in the world—Watson’s résumé looks like that of someone ready to start the grooming process to become a future captain. He’s in a similar spot to Zach Johnson, with one key difference: Johnson was a vice-captain at last year’s Ryder Cup and will reprise that role next week in Australia.
As a result, there’s a growing belief that Johnson is in line to be a captain, possibly either for the 2021 Presidents Cup team or the 2022 Ryder Cup team. Watson, on the other hand, figures to rank behind Woods (who will lead U.S. next week in Australia at the Presidents Cup and will almost assuredly be a future Ryder Cup captain), next year’s Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, Johnson and Phil Mickelson as far as future captains go.
After playing alongside Woods on Thursday at the Hero World Challenge, Watson spoke at length about being left out of this year’s squad—in any capacity—that heads to Australia on Saturday night.
“I told [Tiger] on the range yesterday morning, I’m about seventh alternate, and everyone’s falling down, so I got a shot. I might just hole up on the plane just to be safe,” a jovial Watson said with a smile. He then shifted to discussing the selection process for leadership roles on American teams.
“It’s the one time where I feel like I can help,” Watson said. “If it’s me and you playing, I can only help one person. But if it’s me out there helping the 12 guys get to where they need to be, whether it’s trying to get a point, trying to get a trophy—if that’s a sandwich, a bag of tees, more golf balls, water, whatever it is, I feel like I can help everybody at once. … For me,  was the thrill of a lifetime. I felt like I was a part of the team, even though I was a vice-captain.
“I would be vice-captain any time they ask me,” he continued. “Doesn’t matter if it was on my schedule, I’d be like, ‘Hey, wherever we gotta fly to, I’ll tell my kids, I’ll see y’all in a week.’ It’s one of those things where it would be a dream come true. Because it was, when I got asked, even though I was No. 7 in the world, it was better than playing because I was a part of the whole team.”
There’s no reason to doubt the sincerity of Watson’s statements. He was genuinely honored to be selected, and clearly felt at least a bit disappointed not to get that call again this year. He was then asked where being a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup captain would rank among his career accomplishments, and his tone shifted.
“Back in the old days, it felt like it was an honor to be a captain. It was, you played unbelievable throughout your career, you’ve been on a veteran on the tour, you’ve won a major, whatever it was … so it was like a Hall of Fame. That’s how I viewed it, when I was a 12 years old getting into golf and wanting to play golf. That’s how I viewed it. So for me, to be a captain, I’d see it as an honor and a privilege.
“But not when they start picking, and it’s the pods, and all these things of like the vice-captain always the same [each year], it takes away from some of the legacy of it, of being a great champion before and now we’re going to honor you with a captaincy.
“Now, it’s TV ratings and trying to get the right people in there that’s going to get the TV ratings and everything. Don’t get me wrong, Tiger’s a pretty good captain. I think he earned his right. I think it’s, everybody’s that’s been picked has earned their right, but it used to be a different feel to it when they picked you.”
Reading between the lines, it seems Watson feels he might be a little bit left out from the “boys club” dynamic that sees a number of the same people get captaincies and vice-captaincies. For example, Davis Love III captained the U.S. Ryder Cup teams in 2012 and 2016, Fred Couples headed three straight Presidents Cup teams and is a vice captain this year, and Stricker helmed the 2017 Presidents Cup team, is an assistant next week and will lead the 2020 Ryder Cup team.
Granted, all three of those guys are more than a decade older than Watson, so perhaps his time will come. He did offer a preview into what kind of captain he’d be if he does get the call one day.
“If I was captain, I’m not going to tell Tiger Woods what to do. ‘Hey man, you need to go practice.’ Nah, you’re good. You’ve won 82 times. If you want to sit here and eat ice cream, eat ice cream. But you’re gonna tee off at 10 o’clock tomorrow.”