Watson enters major championship armed with driver and diploma

BLOOMFIELD TOWNSHIP, Mich. --- When Bubba Watson steps to the first tee at Oakland Hills this afternoon and pulls out his pink-shafted driver and pummels the golf ball farther than anyone else has all day, the gallery will reflexively "ooh" and "aah."

 

The thought behind their gasps, however, isn't likely to be, "Wow, there goes a college graduate!"

Watson has become well known for being the longest driver in golf, but the brains behind his grip-it-and-rip-it style have never been as highly regarded. But that didn't stop Watson from cleaning up some college course work he left incomplete seven years ago.

Last week, Watson got a phone call from the University of Georgia congratulating him on passing the mandatory Regents Exam and completing the final two credit hours for his degree in consumer economics. He'll compete this week in the PGA Championship as a Georgia alumnus.

"I know it's something he's very proud of and I'm proud of him for doing it," said Chris Haack, the Georgia golf coach. "To leave school and come back, it's not very often that happens."

Watson left Georgia in December 2001 just two credit hours shy of earning a diploma. He departed in a huff, angry that he was the "sixth man" on a roster that is the only in collegiate history to produce five players rated third-team All-American or higher. He felt the institution no longer had anything to offer him, so he released himself on his own recognizance.

"At the time I didn't care because I knew I was turning pro and was ready to become pro and wasn't thinking about school," Watson said.

But Watson's wife, formerly Angie Ball, graduated from Georgia after starring on the women's basketball team. Her diploma on the wall certainly clashed with his degree from Faulkner State Community College.

And with Watson getting involved with youth tournaments and scholarship programs near his hometown of Bagdad, Fla., suddenly that diploma in consumer economics seemed more essential.

"I can't tell kids they need to go to school unless I do it myself," he said. "You can trace it back to that. I felt like for me to be a good role model and a good person to help these kids, I needed to prove it to them and show them that I could do it myself."

So that's when Watson called Haack over the winter to ask if it was possible to return to Georgia and complete his education. They mapped out a plan to get it done, which required Watson to return to Athens, Ga., at least five times since May to attend a class taught by Anne Sweaney, the department head for housing and consumer economics.

"I tried to show them that I really wanted this," Watson said. "I didn't want nothing handed to me. I wanted to work and I wanted them to grade it just like everybody else would get graded. (Sweaney) made sure I did all that I had to do. I was just an average Joe. Nobody even knew I was there or could care less about me."

Considering Watson's celebrity day job requires playing golf tournaments all over the country week after week, it was no easy task.

"It's a hard thing to do because you've got a career and have to juggle to get it done," said Haack.

One of the things Watson had to juggle was a 30-page paper.

"Humongous," he called it. "That's the first one I've ever done."

Adhering to the principle of writing what you know, Watson wrote about the evolution of his retail venture called Bubbagolf. It's a golf apparel line launched by the same Steve & Barry's enterprise that created Stephon Marbury's low-cost shoe brand. The idea is to provide reasonably priced golf attire so that the same blue-collar people Watson grew up around in Milton, Fla., could dress as appropriately as the folks at high-priced country clubs.

"How it came about, the price-point of everything under $15, textiles and materials to make shirts ...," he said of the scope of his term paper. "I had to write a paper on everything, from picking out colors and the material to why did I choose to do that and why it was a great fit for me."

Watson passed the class but he still had to pass the standardized reading comprehension test that makes sure nobody skates through the system. It was not something a guy who doesn't read a lot of books, and hasn't been in a scholastic environment for seven years, took for granted. Watson studied and took practice exams and went back to Athens for one last hurdle.

"For me to sit still and read something and then answer questions about it is hard for me to do," he said. "Read nine different items and had to answer six or seven questions about each. For me to do that in a two-hour time limit, I was nervous because it was something I really wanted to do. It was a goal of mine and to get the call that I passed was really cool."

That call came last week. Haack also called to offer congratulations. Watson was invited to walk at graduation after summer school, but will pass to keep walking the fairways of the PGA Tour's postseason series.

"It's not that big of a deal for me to walk," he said. "It's more important for me to get that piece of paper. Now I've got this. It's a big stepping stone for me and a big accomplishment."

Now, if only winning a golf tournament were that easy.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

PGA CHAMPIONSHIP

SITE: Bloomfield Township, Mich.

SCHEDULE: Today-Sunday

COURSE: Oakland Hills Golf Club, South Course (7,395 yards, par 70)

PURSE: $7.5 million ($1.35 million, winner's share)

TELEVISION: TNT (Today-Friday, 1-7 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 11 a.m.-1 p.m.) and CBS-Ch. 12 (Saturday-Sunday, 2-7 p.m.)

LAST YEAR'S WINNER: Tiger Woods, who is sidelined with a knee injury.

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