Growing up in Connecticut, I attended first Greater Hartford Open, then the Buick Championship, now the Travelers Championship most every summer.
Of all the tournaments I watched at TPC River Highlands, the only one I saw to its Sunday evening conclusion was in 2010, when Bubba Watson vanquished Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank in a playoff after coming from six shots behind Justin Rose’s 54-hole lead. Watson was overcome with emotion when he accepted his first PGA Tour trophy. Tears streamed down his face as he leaned on wife Angie and he dedicated the victory to his father, who was back in Florida in failing health. As he addressed the cheering crowd, it was easy to sense that it was entirely his.
This past Sunday at TPC River Highlands’ 16th hole, where he had secured his maiden victory three years ago, an evidently very different Bubba Watson faltered. Leading the tournament at the time, Watson’s tee shot — a nine iron — came up short in the pond that guards the green of the 178-yard par 3. Watson, incredulous, threw up his hands and glared at caddie Ted Scott. Scott has seemed to serve a more active role in Watson’s life than most caddies—the tall Floridian has credited Scott in the past with helping build a more positive on-course demeanor.
After rinsing his tee shot, Watson proceeded to the drop area, conferred with Scott and hit a half-wedge shot that careened over the green.
“So you’re telling me that’s the right yardage,” seethed Watson, all condescension.
Viewers, especially those who have caddied before, cringed at the awkwardness of what had just happened. Watson ultimately made triple-bogey on the hole and finished a disappointing fourth place, two shots behind eventual winner Ken Duke.
Watson and Scott have publicly made up (thanks, Twitter), laughing off the exchange as something that happened in the heat of competition. But nevertheless, the incident is bound to lose Watson some fans.
Image-wise, Watson’s last three years have been eventful, and not always in a positive way. He won the 2012 Masters in spectacular fashion, yes, but the prior summer, during a trip to play in the European Tour’s French Open, he was reportedly uncooperative with media requests during the week, made some comments that belied little engagement with the culture and promptly missed the cut in the event. The ordeal left European golf fans and media with the impression of Watson as a stereotypical “cowboy American” — culturally clueless and borderline boorish.
Early in 2012, Watson purchased an orange 1969 Dodge Charger, a “General Lee” of “The Dukes of Hazzard” fame for more than $100,000. For some, the extravagance smacked of the same indelicacy Watson exhibited in France but for most, it was merely “Bubba being Bubba.”
In 2013, Watson has had mixed success on the golf course while continuing to build his own personal brand off it, to the extent that some have wondered which side of his life has taken the lead. With new clothing sponsor Oakley, Watson made literal waves in April by appearing in a video that showed off a futuristic mode of golf course transportation: a hovercraft.
The stunt generated almost as much buzz as Watson’s two appearances in the pro-golf faux boy-band The Golf Boys’ videos and only added to Watson’s visibility.
Do not take this as a condemnation of Watson, though, for all its mention of his public foibles. Quite the opposite, in fact: his fun-loving public attitude and down-home roots make him an everyman figure the game has not seen since John Daly — the type of figure golf needs.
He also happens to be one of the longest-hitting and most creative players of the game today, which adds to his appeal by backing up the sizzle with considerable substance. But moments like Sunday’s, when he laid his own ill-execution at the feet of his caddie, available to all who were watching the telecast, are frustrating to all golf fans — this one included — who want the best to be true of Watson.
Here’s hoping Sunday’s behavior was an aberration, rather than an accurate glimpse at the real Bubba Watson.