From the Magazine
What would a tour pro shoot at your course? Bubba Watson helps us find out
The course was Starfire Golf Club in Scottsdale. The player was Bubba Watson, and he was staring down a 30-yard pitch on the final hole for eagle. Bubba was out here to do one thing, and that was to go as low as possible. We suppose that’s the objective for any round of golf, yes? Only Watson was part of an experiment, and through 17 holes he had passed the test. Now he wanted to end it with an exclamation mark.
“The video better be rolling,” Watson hollered. His voice boomed with authority, and though he was motioning toward a camera crew, he wanted to make sure his friends heard him. For a moment, the man who famously kept his top-button buttoned decided to be a bit unbuttoned. “They better be rolling,” he continued, “because this is going in.”
TOUR STOP VERSUS EVERYDAY COURSE
The PGA Tour visits the toughest, longest and most well manicured venues in the world—venues that look nothing like the average golf courses most of us play. Comparing the conditioning of regular golf courses to a tour site resembles the before-and-after photographs of a house renovation show. Tour players hit out of immaculate sand; the rest of us hit out of bunkers that hold something resembling sand. The main similarity between putting surfaces is that both have flagsticks. Yet a long-hitting pro might drive half the greens. This has long generated debate in locker rooms and grills and crowded tee boxes: What would a tour pro shoot at our course?
It’s a question that prompts a variety of responses. Most tend to think the answer is “stupid low.” If pros can shoot 66s at a tour setup, what chance does a regular course stand?
Yet how low is stupid low—63, 60, 58? These guys are good, but they can’t birdie every hole. Conversely, some believe their home courses could hold up just fine. Part of this is pride, but it’s not blind pride. An average course has quirks most tour venues don’t, and the putting surfaces are harder than tour greens because they’re not held to pristine standards. There’s recent evidence to suggest this is true: In 2019, Jim Herman returned to his childhood course, Shawnee Lookout, and set the club record with a 64—a score that sounds stupid low until you realize that (a) Shawnee was just 6,000 yards, par 70, from the tips and (b) Herman had just won the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship at the 7,100-yard, par-72 Keene Trace, thanks to a 62 and a pair of 65s. Maybe regular courses are formidable in a way.
But Herman’s day at Shawnee was one of visitation, not business: The course was closing, and he wanted one more go-around. Score was secondary to sentiment. He didn’t even realize what he shot until his brother told him. Herman’s tale was more barstool fodder than scientific proof. That’s why we decided to make the experiment official.
Bubba takes on a 6,100-yard course
Starfire offered to be our testing ground. It weighs in at 6,106 yards, roughly 1,000 yards shorter than the average PGA Tour course. Sound short? Consider the average American male golfer hits his drive about 220 yards, according to the shot-tracking site Game Golf Live, and at that distance the USGA recommends playing from tee markers at 5,800 to 6,000 yards. Starfire is an interesting design with a handful of idiosyncrasies. It has long par 3s and short par 5s, and the layout can be sneakily suffocating. The conditioning is good but not great, the greens are mostly green but brown and bumpy in parts, and the practice range is expansive and stocked with balls that are desperately asking to be sent to the ICU. The green fee is $36. Players dressed in polos and well-trimmed shorts are paired with players in gym attire. In short, a normal public course.
As for Bubba, he is not really a pro; there are thousands of those around the world. He is a two-time Masters champion, a feat only 17 men have accomplished. He has won 12 times on the PGA Tour and made six appearances on Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams. That is who you want in this arena—someone whose game underlines the expanse between them and us. With power and touch, a vision to see lines others don’t and the courage to take them, and a proclivity for shaping shots, Watson’s game is singular.
Photographs by Jesse Rieser
We had our course, and we had our player. We needed a projection. Sal Syed, co-founder and chief executive of Arccos Golf, ran a simulation through his stat-tracking application that projected a 66.5 for the average tour pro at Starfire, with Bubba’s number estimated to be 66. However, Syed emphasized that this forecast came with an asterisk because it factored in tour-level green speeds. “As long as he can adjust to the green speeds, his score should be even lower,” Syed said. For context, he said the average male scratch player would shoot 72.3 from those same tees and a 10-handicapper an 83.
Bubba had a number to chase, and it was time to chase it.
‘ATTACKING THIS LIKE A TOUR EVENT’
When our editors pitched this idea to Watson, he was all in. But we questioned that commitment when he rolled up to Starfire’s first tee with three—how should we put this nicely—retirees. At first, we thought the starter accidentally sent off a threesome with Bubba—which would make for an interesting story—but Bubba said they were with him.
“I brought the old guys so that my drives look that much longer,” Watson joked. But we prodded. No, really, what’s the deal? Nothing against these guys, but most tour pros are surrounded by agents, managers, instructors, equipment reps, siblings, former college teammates and general parvenus. (Some pros have enough lackeys to field a softball team.) Turns out one of the guys was Bubba’s business partner, Sandy Sansing, and the other two—Charles Davis and Kenneth Darula—are members at Desert Mountain Club in Scottsdale, one of Bubba’s home courses.
“Hey, man, they’re golfers just like you and me,” Watson said. “I play with a lot of guys on tour, and when I’m at my home courses, I play with a lot of regular folks. I don’t care about your game or what you do for a living or who you are; I just want to play with good people.” Hard to argue with that. Besides, these guys can play: Each of them hit drives of more than 270 yards on the first hole, and all did so despite Bubba pointing out a lake just off the tee box.
But we were not here to watch them. We were here for Bubba. His career low on tour is a 62, but he once shot 58 at Estancia, also in Scottsdale. Bubba asked for a prediction, and we relayed Syed’s forecast. Watson gazed in the distance at the sound of 66, nodded his head and said, “I think we can beat that.” He was dressed like it was a tour event, donned in sponsor apparel from head to toe. “I’m attacking this like a tour event,” Watson said.
Watson’s warm-up wasn’t as long as it would be for a tour event—he hit 20 or so mid-irons on the range followed by a few strokes on the putting green. Watson had the first tee time of the day at 7:58, and with an open course ahead, what golfer wouldn’t be ready to roll?
Starfire’s opening hole is a 559-yard par 5 with a street hugging the left, a neighborhood on the right and a handful of fairway bunkers from 270 to 300 yards out. Not the most gracious of welcomes. A 350-yard tee shot—what Bubba called a “nice, easy cut”—made things more hospitable. With only 200 and change left, Watson found the green with a 30-foot eagle try awaiting. We should point out that Watson was only days removed from playing in the Masters. Even with a warm-up, going from Augusta National’s greens to public greens would seemingly take some recalibrating. You would expect putts to come up short at first, which is what happened with Watson’s eagle attempt. He made the short birdie to go one under par through one.
About that time a passing motorist noticed Bubba’s distinctive look and pulled over to get a photo with his phone. Watson was polite and nodded, hopped in his cart and drove to the second tee. “No matter where I’m at, happens every day,” Watson whispered.
His tee shot on the second, a 188-yard par 3, took one bounce and stopped three feet from the hole. Two under through two. In that moment, 66 seemed like a miscalculation. A piercing 310-yard “stinger” at the third reinforced that notion. The third is Starfire’s No. 1 handicap hole, and Watson had 110 to a front pin. Breaking 60 felt doable. “It shouldn’t be this easy,” Charles said, shaking his head.
The golf gods must have heard these thoughts and punished Bubba for our collective hubris.
His approach landed just past the pin but backed up off the green. His birdie try from the fringe was short; he was human after all. At the fourth, a par-3 island green, Sandy went first, hitting his tee shot 10 feet from the hole. “How much wind is up there?” Watson asked. “About a yard or so,” Sandy replied. “A yard?” Watson said, incredulously. “That’s not a thing.” It was more like 10 yards of wind because Watson’s shot came up 30 feet short. Two straight pars and a third at the 350-yard fifth: Watson’s drive went 320 yards but found a bunker without much sand. (Welcome to public golf, Bubba.) He managed to get it on the green but couldn’t convert the putt.
It was time for Bubba to unleash some steam. His playing partners had put their approaches inside of his for three straight holes, and they let him know it. Watson took the good-natured jabs, but it was clearly the motivation for a 300-yard drive into a three-club wind that finished just off the fairway. A tree would make reaching the par-5 sixth in two difficult—at least it seemed that way. Watson took an easy 6-iron, working his ball 30 yards from left to right and landing it 15 feet short of the pin from 198 yards. A grin crossed Bubba’s face; even he knew that was impressive.
Still, his feel for the greens remained off, and he missed the eagle putt by inches. Three under through six. Much of the same followed at the par-4 seventh (bombed drive, good approach, missed 20-footer) and the par-3 eighth (30 feet right of the pin, good lag). “We’re close,” Bubba mumbled as he walked off the eighth. “Just you wait.”
The ninth is a straightforward par 5, just 504 yards. But the back tee was closed for repair, meaning Watson would be teeing off at about 480 yards. “Hey,” Bubba said, “that water’s not in play, right?” He was motioning toward a greenside pond that was a good 380 yards out. Even for one of the game’s best, this was a ridiculous ask—except his drive came up only 10 yards short of the water, a reminder that our ridiculous is his routine. It was a drive he did not waste, knocking a three-quarter wedge to three feet for an eagle 3.
Watson had not made a putt outside the circle of friendship for the first nine holes, yet he still shot a five-under 31. What Watson was doing at Starfire was as astonishing as what you see on tour. When you watch professionals at an event, you expect a degree of theater, and by day’s end one is almost numb from 300-yard drives and 10-foot approaches. To see Watson doing what he was doing against amateurs—good players, but still amateurs—at a course where a junior clinic was being conducted hammered home that our game and the pro’s game are not one.
Watson briefly disabused that assertion on the par-3 10th. It’s a tough hole with a bunker guarding the front left of the green and a tree overhanging on the right. It was playing straight into the wind. Unfortunately for Bubba, as soon as his ball went up the wind died, and his ball sailed 30 yards over the green. “I think you over-clubbed,” Sandy told Bubba. “Thanks for that observation,” Bubba replied. He avoided a big number but still left with his first bogey to drop to four under. Worse, he forgot to stop at the turn to grab a hot dog.
You know how after a screw-up you tend to overswing on the next shot and your ball goes soaring into parts unknown thereby compounding your predicament? That’s what Bubba did with his tee shot on the 400-yard 11th. At least the overswinging part. The ball? Well, that went 330 yards, straight in line as a Sunday school teacher. But another birdie putt came up short, and we blamed ourselves for not forcing Bubba to spend an extra few minutes on the putting green before we started.
Watson channeled his frustrations into his drive at the par-4 12th, his ball buzzing by the pin some 340 yards away. A downhill 45-foot putt didn’t give him a reasonable chance at eagle, but he made a good lag for another tap-in birdie. The 13th looks short on the card, a 479-yard par 5, but played long that day because of a two-club wind. Bubba still knifed a drive 310 yards into the gusts. His approach fell just off the back right. An indifferent chip left him four feet for birdie, but he made it to get to six under. With the wind blowing hard right to left at the 14th, a short par 3, Bubba hit one of his worst shots of the day. Granted, it still found the green because his bad is our good, but he was on the wrong shelf facing a 30-footer. But then the putter finally decided to join the fun. Watson made it, punctuated by an enthusiastic fist bump and snarl. “It’s about time, baby!” he said.
Sharing his excitement was a shirtless man whose house abutted the 15th hole. He was not the first spectator; word had spread about what was going on, and neighbors had trickled out of their homes hoping to catch a glance. These people were warm and encouraging and mostly kept to themselves. Our shirtless friend, however, could not contain himself: “Bubba! Go Bubba! Woooooo!” he yelled.
“Well,” Sandy said, “you can’t let him down.” Bubba didn’t, hitting a beautiful 300-yard draw on the dogleg right, par-4 15th, leaving about 70 yards. The approach shot wasn’t his best, maybe 15 feet right of the pin. However, the putter stayed hot, and Bubba knocked it in: four birdies in a row, eight under on the day.
Bubba shouted to no one in particular, “I told you!” In the parlance of our times, Bubba was feeling it, and with three holes left, 59 was still in play.
The 16th is a dogleg-left over water; though Watson’s drive was true, his approach wasn’t. He nearly holed an 8-iron chip from just off the green. He remained at eight under but fell to seven at the par-3 17th. It measures just 150 yards, but Watson misjudged the wind, leaving a fried-egg lie in a backside bunker. He muscled it onto the green, but the putt didn’t fall, and Watson made his second bogey. Just as vexing to Bubba, he was down one in his match (for a few bucks) against Sandy; the handicap system can be a bear when you’re a plus-5.9 Index playing against a 6.6, and the 6.6 plays like a scratch. Not that we’re accusing anyone of sandbagging, Sandy.
At the 18th, a 330-yard drive left Bubba 30 yards off the green. There were no bunkers in front of him, but he didn’t have much green to work with. The safe play would have been to throw it on just past the pin and hope to sink a seven-footer for birdie. Bubba saw something else. After a few practice swings, he beckoned for the phones and cameras to come out.
“This is going in,” he repeated, and just as we realized what was going on—Wait, is he calling his shot?—Bubba lofted the ball into the Scottsdale sky; it took two skips and hit the pin only to pop out, three inches from the cup.
Bubba had his hands on his knees, looking at the ball, then down to the ground, then back at the ball, peering like a betrayed quarterback whose wide receiver ran the wrong route. He trudged up to the green looking upward as a handful of spectators clapped. He wanted more than 62. It certainly seemed that had his putter cooperated, the round could have been lower than a 62. (It also wasn’t an official 62, because Bubba had taken a gimme putt or two, but it would have tied the course record.)
“Probably could have been lower, but you don’t want to disrespect a course,” Watson said. “This was challenging. It’s very playable for everyone, but these greens can be tricky. There’s more break in them than they look.”
As for that called chip shot? “Yeah, we were trying to see how low I could go,” Watson said. “But I don’t care if I’m playing in front of thousands of people or just by myself, I want to have fun. If I ever stop having fun, I’ll quit.”
With that, Watson was off to sign autographs for a growing crowd that had assembled off the 18th. Bubba’s card was shuffled off to be hung in the clubhouse, but it’s his perspective that resonates louder, reminding us that while a low score is nice, it’s not ultimately what counts.
SEE HOW YOUR SKILLS STACK UP
We had a blast seeing what Bubba Watson could do on a course like the ones we play, and soon it will be your chance to get in on the action. Later this year, Golf Digest will take Bubba to play public courses nationwide. Then we’ll conduct amateur events in which you can try to beat the scores Bubba shot when he was there. Think longest drives (you get to hit from the middle tees), straightest drives, closest to the pins, net score on certain holes, and much more. You’ll see where a pro hits the ball, how he plays holes and how your game compares. You might never play on tour, but maybe you’ll be able to say you took a bet off the pro. More to come soon on dates and locations.