Love him or loathe him, Watson is good for golf

By Jason SobelFebruary 17, 2014, 3:40 pm

Golf needs more players like Bubba Watson.

The idea hit me harder than Watson hits a golf ball about halfway through his final-round 64 that netted him the Northern Trust Open victory. Like most Sunday afternoons when I’m not on site at a tournament, I spent this one watching the telecast while simultaneously keeping an eye on Twitter. What I found, not surprisingly, was a wealth of fans cheering lustily for Watson – and maybe just as many cheering against him.

He is the rare professional golfer who elicits passion and emotion, both positive and negative. Tiger Woods is the longtime leader in the PGA Tour’s unofficial category of Most Polarizing, but the list extends past just him. Phil Mickelson is almost universally liked, but has his detractors, too. And a few others – Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler and Ian Poulter among them – inspire 19th-hole debates about their likeability.

All of which should be viewed through a prism of positivity for those who want the game to grow.

Stay with me here. Each of the three previous winners – and I mean no offense to Jimmy Walker, Kevin Stadler and Scott Stallings – collectively provoked a massive shrug from the masses, with some fans going as far as saying, “They seem like nice guys.” That would be a correct assumption, but hardly a passionate one.

Think of it this way: Even the NFL would be all sorts of boring if every fan mildly liked every team. That’s not to say the gentlemen’s game of golf needs to borrow from pro wrestling with heroes and villains, but the more players who evoke emotion, the better.

Photos: Bubba Watson through the years

I tweeted as much, in a 140-character burst and related to Watson, during the final round at Riviera. What followed was a series of fitting responses that only helped prove my point.

I refuse to believe that people hate Bubba.. nobody can hate Bubba!!

Hate is a strong word but, yea, I'd say that's about right

Why do people not like him? What's not to like from his nonchalant attitude on the course and off it.

Such a classless baby. Hope he blows it and we can hear him blame Ted and the cell phones.

The reasons for such venomous reactions largely stem from his on-course eruptions over the years. The most notable came during the final round of last year’s Travelers Championship, when live microphones caught Watson berating – some would say blaming - caddie Ted Scott for club selection at the 16th hole. Never mind the fact that he apologized soon afterward, nor that Scott himself never took issue with the outburst.

Just two weeks ago, Watson missed a putt to force a playoff at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, then instantly turned toward Scott. Again, some would contend he was blaming the caddie; again, that idea would be incorrect.

On Sunday afternoon at Riviera, there were multiple occasions of Watson having rabbit ears, overly worried about a cellphone camera or some other nearby noise emanating from the gallery.

It all gave those with preconceived notions about Watson greater ammunition for their argument. And unlike about 97 percent of his peers, Watson does have fans who actually root against him.

To counterbalance that, though, he also has more people supporting him than most other touring pros.

He didn’t surpass 1 million Twitter followers because he is disliked. His brand of what he’s termed Bubba Golf is enormously popular, with many fans enamored of his ability to not only hit the ball a long way, but work it in every direction, as evidenced by his Masters-winning bender of two years ago.

Watson wears his emotions on his sleeve to the point where he often looks on the verge of tears during competition. He is honest to a fault in interview settings and works on the front lines for various charities, not just donating money, but offering his time and effort.

He can be plenty goofy, too, whether it’s tooling around in the General Lee or rocking overalls and chest hair in Golf Boys music videos.

I’m not here to sway your opinion of Watson in either direction, though. And I’m certainly not here to judge you.

In fact, this really isn’t about him.

This is about the benefits of having players who elicit more than a shrug when they’re shown on the nearest television screen. It’s about the importance of fan integration in the form of raw emotion in a game that is too often devoid of any.

Watson is good for golf in the same way only a few others are. The mere presence of any of these names on a leaderboard is enough to prompt debate and discussion. It’s enough to get people talking, which in today’s sporting landscape isn’t easy.

That was evident once again on Sunday afternoon when Watson won the Northern Trust Open title. Those who love him celebrated the victory; those who love to hate him denounced it. Either way, though, he had everybody talking.

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Cut Line: Color Rory unafraid of the Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardJanuary 19, 2018, 7:09 pm

In this week’s edition, Rory McIlroy gets things rolling with some early Ryder Cup banter, Dustin Johnson changes his tune on a possible golf ball roll-back, and the PGA Tour rolls ahead with integrity training.

Made Cut

Paris or bust. Rory McIlroy, who made his 2018 debut this week on the European Tour, can be one of the game’s most affable athletes. He can also be pointed, particularly when discussing the Ryder Cup.

Asked this week in Abu Dhabi about the U.S. team, which won the last Ryder Cup and appears to be rejuvenated by a collection of new players, McIlroy didn’t disappoint.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

McIlroy has come by his confidence honestly, having won three of the four Ryder Cups he’s played, so it’s understandable if he doesn't feel like an underdog heaidng to Paris.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that,” he said. “The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.”

September can’t get here quick enough.

Mr. Spieth goes to Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour announced this year’s player advisory council, the 16-member group that works with the circuit’s policy board to govern.

There were no real surprises to the PAC, but news that Jordan Spieth had been selected to run for council chair is interesting. Spieth, who is running against Billy Hurley III and would ascend to the policy board next year if he wins the election, served on the PAC last year and would make a fine addition to the policy board, but it is somewhat out of character for a marquee player.

In recent years, top players like Spieth have largely avoided the distractions that come with the PAC and policy board. Of course, we’ve also learned in recent years that Spieth is not your typical superstar.

Made Cut-Did Not Finish (MDF)

On second thought. In December at the Hero World Challenge, Dustin Johnson was asked about a possible golf ball roll-back, which has become an increasingly popular notion in recent years.

“I don't mind seeing every other professional sport. They play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball,” he said in the Bahamas. “I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage.”

The world No. 1 appeared to dial back that take this week in Abu Dhabi, telling BBC Sport, “It's not like we are dominating golf courses. When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy?”

Maybe it didn’t feel that way, but DJ’s eight-stroke romp two weeks ago at the Sentry Tournament of Champions certainly looked pretty easy.

Long odds. I had a chance to watch the Tour’s 15-minute integrity training video that players have been required view and came away with a mixture of confusion and concern.

The majority of the video, which includes a Q&A element, focuses on how to avoid match fixing. Although the circuit has made it clear there is no indication of current match fixing, it’s obviously something to keep an eye on.

The other element that’s worth pointing out is that although the Tour may be taking the new program seriously, some players are not.

“My agent watched [the training video] for me,” said one Tour pro last week at the Sony Open.

Missed Cut

Groundhog Day. To be fair, no one expected Patton Kizzire and James Hahn to need six playoff holes to decide last week’s Sony Open, but the episode does show why variety is the spice of life.

After finishing 72 holes tied at 17 under, Kizzire and Hahn played the 18th hole again and again and again and again. In total, the duo played the par-5 closing hole at Waialae Country Club five times (including in regulation play) on Sunday.

It’s worth noting that the playoff finally ended with Kizzire’s par at the sixth extra hole, which was the par-3 17th. Waialae’s 18th is a fine golf hole, but in this case familiarity really did breed contempt.

Tweet of the week:

It was a common theme last Saturday on Oahu after an island-wide text alert was issued warning of an inbound ballistic missile and advising citizens to “seek immediate shelter.”

The alert turned out to be a mistake, someone pushed the wrong button during a shift change, but for many, like Peterson, it was a serious lesson in perspective.

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Watch: McIlroy gives Fleetwood a birthday cake

By Golf Channel DigitalJanuary 19, 2018, 2:58 pm

Tommy Fleetwood turned 27 on Friday. He celebrated with some good golf – a 4-under 68 in Abu Dhabi, leaving him only two shots back in his title defense – and a birthday cake, courtesy of Rory Mcllroy.

While giving a post-round interview, Fleetwood was surprised to see McIlroy approaching with a cake in hand.

“I actually baked this before we teed off,” McIlroy joked.

Fleetwood blew out the three candles – “three wishes!” – and offered McIlroy a slice.  

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DJ shoots 64 to surge up leaderboard in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 1:48 pm

Dustin Johnson stood out among a star-studded three-ball that combined to shoot 18 under par with just one bogey Friday at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

Shaking off a sloppy first round at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, Johnson matched the low round of the day with a 64 that put him within four shots of Thomas Pieters’ lead.

“I did everything really well,” Johnson said. “It was a pretty easy 64.”

Johnson made four bogeys during an even-par 72 on Thursday and needed a solid round Friday to make the cut. Before long, he was closer to the lead than the cut line, making birdie on three of the last four holes and setting the pace in a group that also included good rounds from Rory McIlroy (66) and Tommy Fleetwood (68).

“Everyone was hitting good shots,” McIlroy said. “That’s all we were seeing, and it’s nice when you play in a group like that. You feed off one another.” 

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, Johnson is searching for his first regular European Tour title. He tied for second at this event a year ago.

Johnson’s second-round 64 equaled the low round of the day (Jorge Campillo and Branden Grace). 

“It was just really solid all day long,” Johnson said. “Hit a lot of great shots, had a lot of looks at birdies, which is what I need to do over the next two days if I want to have a chance to win on Sunday.” 

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Closing eagle moves Rory within 3 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 19, 2018, 12:57 pm

What rust? Rory McIlroy appears to be in midseason form.

Playing competitively for the first time since Oct. 8, McIlroy completed 36 holes without a bogey Friday, closing with an eagle to shoot 6-under 66 to sit just three shots back at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship.

“I’m right in the mix after two days and I’m really happy in that position,” he told reporters afterward.

McIlroy took a 3 ½-month break to heal his body, clear his mind and work on his game after his first winless year since 2008, his first full season as a pro.

He's back on track at a familiar playground, Abu Dhabi Golf Club, where he’s racked up eight top-11s (including six top-3s) in his past nine starts there.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy opened with a 69 Thursday, then gave himself even more chances on Day 2, cruising along at 4 under for the day when he reached the par-5 closing hole. After launching a 249-yard long iron to 25 feet, he poured in the eagle putt to pull within three shots of Thomas Pieters (65). 

Despite the layoff, McIlroy edged world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, coming off a blowout victory at Kapalua, by a shot over the first two rounds. 

“DJ is definitely the No. 1 player in the world right now, and one of, if not the best, driver of the golf ball," McIlroy said. "To be up there with him over these first two days, it proves to me that I’m doing the right things and gives me a lot of confidence going forward.”