It happens every once in while in sports – a phenomenal moment turns into a momentary phenomenon and then we wait to see if it lasts. That is what happened a couple of weeks ago when Bubba Watson’s wedge made a right turn out of the trees and onto to the tenth green in the playoff for the Masters. Watson two putted for a walk into Master’s history and then aced a week of stops on a media magical mystery tour. Who else could have been ‘Tivoed’ and ‘Tebowed’ in the same week? He accommodated everyone, and all were charmed. So when Bubba shows up this week in New Orleans, he does so more than just the reigning champion at the event and the latest major winner. He is more likely King of the Mardi Gras a few weeks late. “Bubba mania” is upon us and the future is worth stopping to consider.
If history tells us anything it is as much about what happens to Bubba the person as Bubba the player that will determine his direction, and history offers at least a couple of scenarios.
In 1991 a son of the south who hit the ball as far as he could and worried about the next shot later teed it up in the last major of the year. He was long and lose and largely self-taught. He was John Daly and the PGA Championship was his coming out party. Daly had that magical something. He was home spun and down home when he talked. He was fun and funny and the experts searched for comparisons.
But before Long John could seize the future Bad John entered the conversation. When Daly showed up in St. Louis for Media Day for the 1992 PGA at Bellerive, less than a year from his Crooked Stick win, he spent a couple of hours introducing himself to the town and that evening he spent a lifetime introducing himself to the East Side. It was a career path auditioned in a just a few hours.
The record shows that Long John had enough talent to pick up a second major at the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1995. It also tells us that when Bubba Watson drives down Magnolia Lane a year from now he will have driven past Daly’s RV on the corner of Washington Road selling Loudmouth clothing and autographed trinkets.
If Daly is Watson’s “Christmas Past,” there is another spirit that may portend a brighter future. Encircling the Daly odyssey is the trail of another Missouri bred golfer. Like Watson he paid his dues on Tour before cashing in at the majors. Like Watson he had an early reputation for bad manners. As with Bubba he showed an early tendency to come close to major success only to fail in the heat of a final round.
Payne Stewart came out of Springfield, Missouri a credentialed amateur with a wake of great performances marked by ungracious behavior. Payne was precocious, accomplished and to many who faced him obnoxious.
When he turned professional, it took him a couple of years to earn the right to join the PGA Tour but then almost immediately he won at the Quad Cities. In the next few years he added two Tour wins in Florida, and like Watson, he lost his father while his career was on the rise. In 1989, at age 32, Stewart was in the right place at the right major to pick up his first. Payne charged as Mike Reid faltered at Kemper Lakes and the guy with the big smile, the loud laugh and the outlandish clothes had arrived. Two years later an equally magnanimous Scott Simpson ole’d the finish of the US Open at Hazeltine and Stewart was the guy with an answer in a playoff.
Stewart had his plus fours, his rock band, Jake Trout and the Flounders, his NFL contract and two majors. What he didn’t have was an appreciative following on Tour. If you drift back just a couple of years on our current Masters champion you will find a similar regard from his fellow pros. Bubba didn’t quite have Stewart’s panache but by reputation he had some of his attitude.
To his credit Stewart changed. Payne became something less than a pain. Among the tragedies of Stewart’s untimely death is his passing came at a time when he had been completely rehabilitated as a person and his cathartic win of the US Open at Pinehurst in 1999 was a validation of the human being he had become.
When Stewart beat Mike Reid in Chicago he showed up for his winner’s press conference his beer in hand laughing and joking while Reid sat on the stage in tears at his moment lost. When Payne won at Hazeltine, he bought champagne for the assembled writers.
It was a different Stewart who slammed the door on Phil Mickelson and a young guy named Woods with that fist-pumping par at the 72 hole on No. 2. Stewart had the presence in the moment to council and console Mickelson on the green, congratulating him in advance on the birth of his first child. The Stewart that met the press after his third major win was philosophical and reflective. He was still quick to laugh and quick to joke but told the writers “I am so much more at peace with myself than I have ever been in my life.”
It is true that Stewart with his classic swing and wonderful course management could not be more different as a player that Bubba Watson, but they have two things that join them as people. On the media tour after the Masters Watson told Charlie Rose on PBS that as a young boy Stewart was his idol as a golfer. He said his grandmother made him a pair of knickers that he wore when he played until he was twelve years old.
There is, however, another article of Stewart clothing that connects to two even more. When Payne won at Pinehurst he talked about the wristband he had been wearing in recent months. It was a beaded bracelet with the letters WWJD. (I will let you Google them to find the translation.) It was that part of Stewart’s life he reflected on late in his winning press conference. It’s the kind of conversation sports writers generally leave out.
When Bubba Watson sat on the riser in the Interview Room at Augusta National on that Easter Sunday night he too talked about what changed him as a person and what anchored his life.
I am not here to tell you players who turn to a higher source find sanctified swings and trumpeted trophies, but if it just give us really good players who are also really good people I can only say “Amen.”