When it comes to golf’s biggest tournaments, The Masters always seems to be the one that brings the most drama to the table. Nearly every year, someone does something magical that people end up talking about for the rest of the golfing year. Whether it’s Phil Mickelson finally bringing home a green jacket, or Tiger Woods lapping the field en route to a 12-shot victory, or Charl Schwartzel birdieing the last four holes to win, there is always something nuts that happens that sets the golf world on fire.
This year’s edition of The Masters was no exception. It started off on Thursday with Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer hitting the ceremonial first tee shots, and that event included Mickelson. Naturally, he was in contention right up until the end, so there was that story line. You also had Fred Couples turning back the clock and leading the event after 36 holes before fading. Finally, you had Louis Oosthuizen, 2010 Open Champion and all-around good guy, making an improbable double eagle on the second hole on Sunday, only the fourth time an albatross has ever been recorded at The Masters and the first time one has ever occurred while television cameras were watching.
All of those stories, however, were dwarfed by a 33-year old who is best known for sporting a pink driver, his tape measure drives, and the fact that he bought the original General Lee from the show “Dukes of Hazzard.” He is also well-known for being in a faux-boy band called the Golf Boys, making goofy Twitter videos, and insulting the French. He is all of these things, but there is one more thing that Bubba Watson was able to add to his business card after Sunday’s final round: Masters champion.
His route to that title was a bit on the odd side, just like the rest of his personality. He struggled with his putter all week, missing a slew of close putts, and his swing occasionally acted up as well. When he bogeyed the 12th hole on Sunday, it looked as though he was going to be starting his slow descent down the leaderboard. Then, as if a switch flipped inside his head, Watson went from goofball to cold-blooded assassin, birdieing the next four holes and launching himself into a tie with Oosthuizen. They both shot matching pars on the 17th and 18th holes, and when Mickelson failed to birdie 17, the two started a playoff back on the 18th tee.
Both players hit the fairway on 18, and Oosthuizen put his approach shot to within about 12 feet of the cup. Having to follow that act was about as high pressure situation as a player could ask for, but Watson was unfazed. He knocked a wedge to within about eight feet, and when Oosthuizen barely missed his putt, Bubba had his opening. Unfortunately for him, he missed, and the playoff went on.
Watson teed off first on the 10th hole, and he hit his drive well right on the dogleg par 4. Even with this golden opportunity in his hands, Oosthuizen drove it right as well, and was faced with a 240 yard second shot. When he ended up short of the elevated green, it appeared to give Watson an opening. Even though he was facing a lie from the pine straw and his only shot appeared to be back to the fairway, Watson saw an opening, and he went for it. That opening just so happened to be a 155 yard hook that needed to hook about 40 yards. What happened next was magical:
That shot was quintessential Bubba Watson, and when he two-putted on that hole, he won his first career major, and the good ole boy from Baghdad, Florida had finally made it big.
But just how big a star can Bubba become? That is a question that is going to be on the minds of a lot of sports fans in the days and weeks ahead. It may not be something that Bubba himself is thinking about with a new son at home and an adoption process still not being fully played out, but it is still a question that needs to be delved into. Can he become golf’s next big star? Can he be a guy who, like Tiger Woods and so many others, can grow the game of golf in America?
The first response to that is, of course, Watson is going to spark a lot of interest short-term. There is an “aww shucks” quality to his personality that fans find very endearing, and that is going to help his marketability immensely. His victory is going to prove to be a field day not only for Ping, but also for his clothing sponsors Travis Mathew and Kentwool. They are going to certainly feature him in as many commercials and print ads as possible, so his face will be plastered everywhere.
The second and more crucial way to answer that question is to say that Bubba will be as big as he wants to be. He has made a name for himself in using Twitter extensively, and he has also made splashes with the goofy viral videos that he has starred in. Judging by the way he was answering interviewers’ questions after the tournament, none of that seems likely to go to his head, so you can probably expect him to keep doing it.
What will be more interesting is whether or not Watson will be able to keep up these types of interactions with his fans. Becoming a father for the first time is something that men don’t really think about before it happens, but when it does, it causes you to re-evaluate a lot of priorities in your life. Will Bubba focus his energy on spending more time with his son and wife than he will in publicizing himself, and the game that he plays for a living? If the answer to that question is yes, then it does dim the star that he could become ever so slightly.
There is also the matter of whether or not the increased attention will make him just a little bit more camera-shy. It’s a tough question to answer, but it would be understandable if the media glare just became too much, and he pared back his schedule and retreated from view a little more often. That would have a negative impact on his ability to socialize with fans, thereby diminishing his potential to be a high wattage star.
The biggest factor, and the one that will likely ultimately prevail, however, is not the fact that he is a Christian (although that will attract a large number of fans, with someone like Tim Tebow being a prime example of that), but the fact that he is the everyman that no golfer since Palmer has been. Bubba is very similar to movie character Happy Gilmore in that way. In the film, Happy just so happens to find out that he is talented at golf, and his unorthodox approach to the game and his zany behavior cause fans to go bonkers over him.
In much the same fashion, the way Bubba shapes the ball and the way he swings are endearing to fans, and they are likely going to take his methods to heart. Soon, you are going to see a lot more kids with long hair and homemade swings popping up on golf courses all across the country, and some of them may end up being as social media-savvy as Watson is. Those characteristics are going to be a huge selling point not just for Bubba, but for the game as a whole, and the PGA Tour would be well advised to try to take advantage of that as much as possible.
Bubba may never be the star that a guy like Woods or Mickelson is, but he is going to appeal to a different demographic of the golfing community than those two do. He is going to inject some new blue collar blood into a game that has been dominated by the upscale folk for most of the Tour’s history, and while guys like Woods and others have proven that country club elites don’t dominate things anymore, no one has embodied so much of that outsider ethic as Mr. Watson.
He has the potential to get more kids hooked on the game than anyone since Tiger, and while that is going to be tremendous for golf, it’s all well and good to Bubba. He is just as content just sitting at home helping to raise his kid, and occasionally driving the General Lee out to a golf tournament and tweet at some of his fans. Even though his priorities may not be in line with what sponsors and advertisers will want, that is just part of Bubba being Bubba, and there is nothing wrong with that.