SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – When a player wins a major championship we often project onto them great expectations. Their moments of brilliance, for that week, are magnified and glorified, fueling the fanatic within us.
When Bubba Watson hit that hook wedge shot from the right woods at Augusta National and won the 2012 Masters, we bought into the self-taught, uber-talented Southerner and his persnickety presence and thought, perhaps, we were witnessing the birth of genius.
Rarely are we caught off-guard in this game; such is our passion for keeping up with all the top-10s, shots, chips and quips of every player. Occasionally, stars fall from the sky or come from the woods. Oak Hill gave us a 27-year-old Lee Trevino in 1968, and he didn’t disappoint. But Trevino was a rare bird whose barrels of birdies over the years helped him win an additional five majors en route to the Hall of Fame. His eccentricity enriched the game.
And yet there are many players who’ve transcended the upper echelons of the game, only to have the glue that holds their wings together melted by the sun.
Ian Baker-Finch won the 1991 Open Championship at age 30, two years after winning the 1989 Crowne Plaza Invitational. He then lost confidence and his swing, and from 1994-97, he missed 32 consecutive cuts. He retired six years later, after shooting 92 in the first round of the ’97 British and withdrawing from the event. His total PGA Tour wins: two.
Trevor Immelman was 28 when he won the ’08 Masters, and many believed the South African was destined for northerly heights. Instead, he dropped as low as 294th in the world after having risen to No. 15. His only other PGA Tour win came at the ’06 BMW Championship, two years prior to his win at Augusta.
A similar thing happened to Wayne Grady, who won the ’89 Westchester Classic and then followed that with a win at the’90 PGA Championship when he was 33. Winless on the PGA Tour ever since, Grady has said, “I should have done better after the PGA, but people were giving me money for nothing. Then I got fat and lazy and lost sight of the ball.”
A bevy of other players with similar odysseys come to mind: Geoff Ogilvy (2006 U.S. Open at age 29), Mike Weir (2003 Masters at age 33), Corey Pavin (1995 U.S. Open at age 35) and David Duval (2001 Open Championship at age 29).
To each their own tales, but none of these players was ever the same after their lone major. Be it money, family, injury, distraction or the free pass that comes with winning a major (previously a 10-year exemption on Tour, now five and thus, minimal motivation to continue to excel), most of these men are a shell of their former professional selves.
Winning a major elevates our expectations of a player because for those four days, four times a year, we are exposed to their excellence. Yet the mark of a great player comes when one can manage their strengths and weaknesses so that both work to their advantage.
John Daly is another player no one saw coming when he won his first major, and for the first time on Tour, at the ‘91 PGA when he was 29. Daly won a few more events – most notably the ’95 British – but soon spiraled into near-oblivion (although the mullet, cigarettes, Diet Cokes and the loud outfits can so instantly and so vividly be recalled). The thing that’s different with Daly is that we calculated his erratic behavior, his vices and addictions into our expectations and thus, have been far less dumbfounded by his decline.
This brings us back to Watson, who is now winless in the 23 months following the ’12 Masters he won at 33. Like Daly, we must calculate Watson’s haphazard, disorderly approach to the game and his unfiltered and uncensored monologues. Wizardly with his wedges, destructive with his driver, yes. But is that enough to expect so much from him?
We consider Bubba a colorful player because he uses a pink shaft and is a tall, gangly and unorthodox player. But at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Watson abhorred slow play every chance he got in post-round interviews, admitting he was unable to overcome its effect on him during the tournament. He spoke of his charity work and its importance in the bigger picture and that life’s not all about winning golf tournaments. Fair enough. But then on Saturday after positioning himself with a two-shot advantage over Kevin Stadler heading into the final round, Watson said: “We need to be under five hours tomorrow. I want to watch the Super Bowl. I want to get ready for the Super Bowl. Who cares about the golf? Under five hours tomorrow, boys. That's not going to happen.”
Spoken a little tongue-in-cheek, perhaps, but Watson uttered similarly dissonant comments all week, including after missing a 5-footer on the 72nd hole to lose by one. He said, “Let's look at it from the prize money standpoint. … I look at what it does for my family, look at what it does for my career, and look what it does to help me inspire me to get better so I can win the next one.”
Unabashed and unapologetic, a stark contrast to the players of today no doubt, with his untaught and untutored swing, Watson is like a Jackson Pollock painting – a masterpiece of mayhem, to be enjoyed with beauty left to the eye of the beholder. While he certainly has the talent, perhaps last week suggested he's lacking the patience and mental acuity this game requires of its greatest dignitaries. He is what he is, and we should expect no more.