PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. — Bubba Watson walked away from Augusta a month ago with a second green jacket, but it was the Augusta National event that happened a week before his Masters triumph that influenced his aftermath.
Watson was inspired by the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship the Sunday before the Masters Tournament to create his own grow-the-game platform.
“I wanted to be about inspiration and helping young kids,” Watson said. “Augusta National, bringing those kids there, bringing the juniors there, that inspired me that week. I went out there and saw them on that Sunday, and for me I wanted to do that to kids in my own little way. How I can try to inspire kids to be better, whether it’s in golf or not?”
In the month between his Masters victory and his return to the course at this week’s Players Championship, Watson took his green jacket on a different kind of victory tour. First he went to Athens, Ga., to speak at the honors banquet for Georgia athletes and hang out with the Bulldogs golf team.
“They have an awards banquet for the smart kids, I guess you could say,” he said. “I wasn’t ever invited to this banquet. My joke there was, it took me two green jackets before I finally got invited to this event. It wasn’t because of my grades.”
Then Watson went to each of the public schools he attended growing up in the Florida panhandle and tossed out a first pitch at a Pensacola Blue Wahoos game.
“I might not have used my time wisely in school, but the teachers were giving their heart to each kid and to me,” he said. “So I wanted to give back a little bit.”
As if to illustrate his scholastic lapses, Watson explained that he didn’t take the same post-Masters New York media blitz as in 2012 “because it was the one year anniversary of the Boston bombing up there.”
“So there was no reason for me to go up there with the green jacket,” he said. “Let them mourn their year, their losses and what happened.”
Geography and the NYC-Boston dynamic obviously weren’t among the classes he excelled in. But Watson has certainly matured into someone comfortable in his own skin and eager to inspire a new generation with his accomplishments and a universal symbol of success in that green jacket.
“When you’re watching those kids, you go back to your days,” he said. “At 12 years old, your only dream is to make it to the Masters, to make it to the PGA Tour. When I got there, I became bitter. Why am I not winning? Why am I not playing good? So you lose focus of what really matters.
“So this time I wanted to inspire, and if that meant the people that played golf, if that meant people that played other sports, if that meant people that want to be lawyers, just telling them that they can make it. These teachers, the first thing I always said when I got the microphone is, I would say actually listen to your teachers, they actually know what they’re talking about. They’re trying to help you.”
Watson isn’t the same guy who seemed a little overwhelmed winning his first major. He wasn’t entirely prepared to handle the stresses and attention that brings at the same time he was trying to learn how to be a father of their newly adopted son, Caleb. The strain was reflected in results that failed to follow up on his breakthrough success.
“You have to remember, though, after I won the Masters in 2012, we had our son,” he said. “I’ve never been a parent before, so it was a little different dealing with that, as it was dealing with being the Masters champion. So this time just, hopefully, my golf stays the same, gets better, whatever. But it’s really who I am as a person, and so I think I know how to handle it a bit better that way. I didn’t like all the attention before. Now I think I’m just prepared for it, know how to handle it.”
At the Players this week, Watson is one of four players who have the chance to claim the No. 1 ranking in the world from an idle Tiger Woods. But with a career best finish of 37th on a Sawgrass course that doesn’t suit his eye, he’s ruling himself out for now.
“Let’s go ahead and write that down on paper – my best finish is 37th, so unless 37th moves me to No. 1, we probably don’t need to worry about that,” he said.
Just the fact that No. 1 is an attainable goal is remarkable for a guy with a self-made swing.
“The green jacket to me is the pinnacle of the game, to win that,” he said. “And to be No. 1, you know, we’ve seen guys that have been No. 1, we’ve seen guys be No. 1 for one week. We’ve seen Phil Mickelson, who is arguably top-five best of all time, and he’s never been No. 1. That would just show me that the rankings are kind of messed up if Bubba Watson has been No. 1 and Phil Mickelson has never been No. 1. But it’s not going to ruin my life or my career if I never get there. Obviously, Phil is doing all right never being there before.”
Another previously impossible dream for Watson is future induction in the World Golf Hall of Fame. With two Masters wins, he’s already qualified for consideration when he reaches 40 in 2018.
“I’ve never thought about the Hall of Fame,” Watson said. “As a kid you’re always thinking about winning a tournament, getting your tour card, winning a major championship. You never make a putt as a 12-year-old going, ‘I made the Hall of Fame.’ You can’t do that. You get voted in and fit a certain criteria. For me to get that recognition, that’s cool. It’s going to be tough for me to make it and let’s say I never make it, it’s still cool for me to be in that conversation. I’ve never dreamed of that so when they started mentioning it that’s a big deal.
“I’ve always had a goal to get double-digit wins. So I’m four away. After that, maybe that’s my new goal is to try to somehow get in the Hall of Fame.”
With Watson’s “inspire tour” finished, he’ll devote his concentration to enhancing that résumé. The green jacket has already gone back in its garment bag until he returns to Augusta next April to try to win it again.
“We’re done with it now; it’s up in the closet,” he said. “Now we’re going to hopefully try to contend at some other tournaments.”