Why the unexpected resurgence of Bubba Watson has been one of the stories of the season.
How Bubba bounced back, links under water and the birth of ‘Kaleidoscope Golf’ – all you need to know for the month ahead.
For most golfers, a season that featured four top 10s, earned $1.2 million and ended with you being ranked 89th in the world would be deemed a productive year. For Bubba Watson, it was a massive step backwards.
“Last year, was one of the lowest points in my life,” says the double Masters winner. “It was a scary time, when I asked myself whether I wanted to be a family man or someone who was battling to make cuts on the PGA Tour.” Bubba, it seems, was a man at a crossroads. “I have a lot going on outside of golf,” he explained. “I have a baseball team. I have a car dealership. I have a candy shop. I could spend a lot of time improving those businesses or I could
struggle to make cuts on the PGA Tour. Those were my options and I was close to retiring.”
So what went so wrong for the left-hander in 2017 that retirement was a genuine option? Opinions differ. If you ask equipment experts, Bubba’s issues stemmed from him signing a sponsorship deal with a lesser-known golf ball manufacturer – swapping Titleist for Volvik. If you ask golf statisticians, Bubba’s problems were down to his poor iron play (his Strokes Gained Approach the Green ranking dropped from 40th in 2016 to 145th in 2017).
And if you ask Bubba, his troubles were down to an illness that saw him lose a significant amount of weight. “I didn’t have the strength that I needed to play my best, so I lost confidence in my abilities,” he says. Bubba was out of form, disillusioned and desperately in need of a break. So when his 2016/17 campaign ended in early September, he packed his trunk and waved goodbye to the PGA Tour circus. Initially, the plan was for him to spend four months at home, mixing working on his game with looking after his kids and helping his wife Angie recover from knee surgery. But then the former World No.2 got bored.
“Some parts of being at home were a blast,” he explained after entering the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in late October. “I enjoyed volunteering at my son’s school and seeing how well my daughter has been doing at pre-school, but I have also been sitting at home thinking, ‘Man, this sucks, I want to play golf’.”
New season, new attitude
Bubba finished tied 51st at the Shriners, but he wasn’t going to let that get him down, partly because he had seen what a life without golf would look like and partly because his wife had given him a no-holds-barred pep talk.
“She basically told me to quit whining and play golf,” reveals Bubba.
With his partner’s words ringing in his ears, the two-time major winner endeavoured to draw the positives from every round he played. “My ballstriking is where I want it to be, but my putts are just not going in,” he said during February’s Waste Management Phoenix Open. “I am stroking them well, but right now the ball is just laughing at me.”
A fortnight later, the ball stopped laughing and Bubba started crying. But they were tears of joy, the Floridian having won the 10th PGA Tour title of his career at the Genesis Open. “Nobody thought Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Florida – without lessons, head case, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, can’t putt – would ever get to 10 wins,” he sobbed.
Eyes wiped, the 39-year-old added an 11th PGA Tour victory at March’s WGC-Dell World Match Play Championship (above). “Being healthy and stronger just helps me physically and mentally,” he smiled after that victory. “I have the strength back to hit the hard bomb or the big slice off the tee, so it is working out.”
‘I have a baseball team, a candy store, a car dealership. PGA Tour, I started to think I should retire and concentrate
Working out is something of an understatement. Six months after being in the depths of despair, Bubba is back in the world’s top 20 and back among the favourites to win majors.
“Bubba’s renaissance is one of the most interesting developments of this year,” believes BBC Radio 5 Live golf correspondent and BBC Golf podcast host Iain Carter. “Last year felt like the beginning of the end of a fine career. It was very hard to see him bouncing back, but he has done this emphatically.”
So what does Carter put this resurgence down to? “Bubba is an emotional character and his results tend to follow an emotional curve,” he says. “When he feels fit, healthy and confident in what he is doing, he is capable of playing some of the greatest golf anyone will play. But he is also equally capable of disappearing off the scene depending on the circumstances of a tournament, how he is feeling and where his mind is.”
A unique talent
This unpredictability is what makes the left-hander so interesting to write about and refreshing to watch. “Bubba is one of the joys of the modern golf scene,” agrees Carter. “He plays his own brand of golf and moves the ball unlike any other player. He is unique. And whether you are a fan of his or not, the fact he is back playing such high quality, imaginative golf is a massive bonus for the game.”
But now he is back, what does the man himself want to achieve over the rest of the season. “I’m trying to get Jim Furyk to notice me, because I really want to play in France,” says the man who was a nonplaying vice-captain at the 2016 Ryder Cup. “Vice-captain or playing, I want to be there. But I would rather play.” It’s a sentiment shared by everyone, even us Europeans.
Struggling to make cuts on the on those other things in my life’