He was the only modern golfer who could pull it off. Bubba Watson looked just as natural in the Santa Claus suit he wore for his latest Twitter pictures as he did shirtless and in overalls in his classic “Golf Boys” video.
The reigning Masters champion is comfortable behind the wheel of the General Lee, the original Dodge Challenger from the “Dukes of Hazard” that he now owns, and doing back-flips off of decks for his famous home videos, which always end with Bubba looking into the camera and saying, “You’re welcome.”
About the only time he’s uncomfortable is during traditional golf ceremonies, like the Green Jacket presentation at Augusta National, where he looked like he was being held hostage instead of getting one of golf’s most coveted prizes. Or at the Ryder Cup press conferences, where he was like a fidgety little kid who needed his hand slapped with a ruler.
Those are the spots where Bubba can’t be Bubba, where he feels hemmed in by the trappings of the game that has made him a household name.
But when he is unleashed, nobody in golf is more entertaining. The first tee at Medinah was a perfect example. Ryder Cups are always loud, but Chicago for the 2012 matches was like a Bears playoff game.
Bubba added to that raucousness by encouraging fans on the first tee to cheer while he was hitting his tee shots. It was the first time in recent memory, and maybe the first time in the history of the game, that a player encouraged crowd noise while he was hitting.
“It’s not the noise during the swing,” Bubba said. “It’s when you have all that noise and then it goes dead silent. That’s when it gets to you.”
He doesn’t adhere to the traditional norms of what a PGA Tour player and major champion should be, but to call him unconventional is to miss the point. Bubba doesn’t wear flashy clothes to catch attention or dye his hair to craft a brand.
Walking from the locker room to the first tee, he looks like your average generic golf pro: white slacks, solid shirt, and Ping visor. His only real nod to individuality in his equipment or apparel is his pink driver.
But watch him practice and play and the true genius comes through. This is a man who can spend an hour and a half on the practice tee and never hit the same shot twice.
He hits low hooks, mid-range hooks and high hooks, and then low cuts, mid-range cuts and high cuts with every club in his bag. Some of the shots could be described as baby-draws or fades and others are hard-core hooks and slices, like the sand wedge he hooked 40 yards off pine straw to win the Masters.
He doesn’t hit those shots for show; it’s how he plays.
“He doesn’t try to be anybody else,” Bubba’s good friend Rickie Fowler said at last year’s Tour Championship. “Love him or hate him, Bubba is who he is and he’s not going to change.”
He is one of the most interesting personalities the stoic game of golf has seen in years: a player who will video bomb a reporter in the middle of a live broadcast after bashing produce on late night television with Jay Leno.
He is also the most easily diagnosed ADHD patient in history, but he refuses to be tested for fear of what he might learn. His concern is that medicating the things that make him off-putting — like the time he went ballistic on Steve Elkington with the cameras rolling after Elk supposedly moved during Bubba’s backswing — will inhibit the things that make him great.
No one else can hit a 350-yard 3-wood with a 70-yard slice that lands in the middle of a green, as Bubba did at Kapalua, and no one can look so nonchalant while winning on golf’s biggest stages.
When he won the Masters with the miraculous hooked approach shot on the second playoff hole, he collapsed into his mother’s arms, weeping like a child.
“I’ve never had a dream go this far,” he said. “So I can’t say it’s a dream come true.”
On Thursday after Christmas, he made some other dreams come true though. That day, Bubba was in Phoenix presenting the Phoenix Children’s Hospital with a check for $250,000 as part of his “Bubba and Friends” campaign. The Bubba Watson Lab at the hospital will serve pediatric patients with neuromuscular diseases.
That is what he does. And when you strip away all the home videos, the goofy quotes, and the emotional blubbering, that is why Bubba is one of the most popular athletes golf has ever produced.