“I never got this far in my dreams,” he said.
The quote is pure Watson, at once self-effacing and self-assured. It anchors the homepage of his website, overlaying the first photo that appears onscreen. There stands Bubba after all the pomp and ceremony, in a rare solitary moment behind the clubhouse, hands in the pockets of his white slacks, the coveted jacket a perfect fit for his wide shoulders. He is smiling at some distant thought, and he looks very much at home.
That he never got this far in his dreams is no doubt one of the blessings Watson often talks about. His current reality is much better than most people could imagine. He returns to Augusta National Golf Club this week -- a year and a few days after the whirlwind three weeks in which he and his wife adopted their first child and he won his first major championship -- as the same golfer with a positive outlook and aligned priorities.
He is in. He belongs. Bubba from Bagdad, country cool, city wise, 34 years old, has earned a lifetime pass into golf’s most desirable location. He brings with him a homemade game inherited from his late father, Gerry, an old Green Beret who passed away in 2010 after battling cancer. Along with the passion for golf came a game fashioned on power but with a surprising amount of precision, a game built to last.
Gerry also bequeathed a sensitive side to his only son.
“Dad acted tough,” Watson once said. “But he wasn’t. Watching him go through his disease and pass away, really helped me figure out in my life what I truly believe.”
What Watson truly believes in first and foremost is an old-fashioned Christian faith he is unabashed about proclaiming. To do so he uses all the modern tools, starting with Twitter on which he often tweets a “prayer for the day” to his 856,257 (and counting) followers.
Recently he wrote, “Lord, help me be gracious and slow to anger, just like you!! Amen!”
Next on his priority list is family, his wife Angie, and their son, Caleb, the 1-year-old boy Watson sometimes calls “Little Man.” They will be on hand this week for the Masters, and Bubba already has big plans and expectations for the week.
“I’m looking forward to it,” he said. “My family wasn’t there last year. At the Par 3 Contest we’re going to have Caleb there in his little caddie outfit and my wife will be out there and we’ll get some nice photos of us out there. It’s going to be family time and have fun, and also just enjoy the ride of being Masters champion and try to defend it.
“If I win, great. If not I’ll still be in the Masters next year. Whatever happens, it’ll be a blast.”
Make that a continuation of the blast the Watson family has been having almost nonstop since Bubba won the Masters. It includes changing diapers, Watson said, and joining in all the joys of child-rearing. Some photographic evidence that Caleb will be ready for the Par 3 surfaced on Twitter this week. Angie was home watching Bubba on TV as he reprised last year’s appearance on “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, when she captured Caleb standing beneath the TV reaching up toward the image of his dad – who was cracking jokes on the show.
Angie’s tweet to accompany the photo: “One of the sweetest things I've experienced as a mom. Went straight 4 the TV when he heard daddy's voice!”
The way Bubba was smiling on screen, Caleb might have toddled over about the time daddy was saying how well Tiger Woods is playing and how tough Woods will be to handle in this week’s Masters.
“Hopefully my Champions Dinner gives him food poisoning,” Watson said, tongue firmly in cheek. “But, you know, really, when you think about, he’s the best ever. And he’s on top of his game. He’s won his last two events. He’s healthy. He’s got a new love. He’s doing everything in the right direction.”
Watson recognizes that everything he loves to do off the golf course flow from his success on it. As he put it when talking about his charity work, interacting with fans, making videos with the Golf Boys, doing sponsor days and product endorsements: “We told our sponsors, ‘Look, I know you want to do things, and do this, but you don’t like Bubba if Bubba isn’t playing good.’”
So, for now, Watson has shifted his attention back to his game. He showed last year why he has the ability to be a regular on Masters leaderboards for the next decade and should one day join the elite list of 16 golfers who have won multiple Masters since 1934.
Two-time United States Open champion and ESPN commentator Andy North believes Watson is made in the mold of Masters greats. He talked about Bubba’s “unbelievable length” off the tee, about his imagination and ability to come up with inventive shots, and, adding that although Watson’s short game “might not be the greatest,” he makes up for it with all his other weapons.
“I would never bet against a top-10 ranked player in the world that’s long at Augusta, no matter what else he did,” North said.
An oft-overlooked strength of Watson’s is his ability with the scoring clubs, the mid-to-short iron shots. He didn’t play enough rounds for it to be official, but hitting almost 70 percent of the greens in regulation last season would have ranked him No. 2 on the PGA TOUR. During his Masters victory, Watson also dominated the difficult par-3 holes, playing them in 4-under for the week. The record for a champion is 5-under, done by Craig Wood in 1941 and Jack Nicklaus in 1965.
In a pre-Masters TV interview in 1999, Nicklaus said he believed his prowess on Augusta’s par 3s helped him as much, if not more, than did his play on Augusta’s par-5 holes in winning a record six Masters.
“That seemed to be my strength more than people thought,” Nicklaus said.
Way too early to put Bubba Watson in the same search terms with “Nicklaus and Masters.” That would come under the dream category. But he will at least be in the same room at this year’s Champions Dinner on Wednesday night. It’s a start, and, as the current buzz phrase might have it, he is trending up.