Bubba Watson is the 76th Masters champion and he did it by making 350-yard drives and hooked wedges look easy on the behemoth that is Augusta National.
His road to the Champions Locker Room was anything but easy, though – and no, that doesn’t infer the literal road, Magnolia Lane, which could feel the wheels of his General Lee someday soon.
There’s an inside story behind Bubba’s journey from developmental tour golfer to PGA Tour member to Masters winner that hasn’t often been told.
Back in 2005, Watson was playing his third season on the Nationwide Tour. After finishing 63rd and 37th on the money list in his first two years, he was inching ever closer to one of what was then 20 guaranteed places on the PGA Tour for the next season.
In fact, entering the season-ending Nationwide Tour Championship, he ranked 18th on the list, thanks to five top-10 results, including a second-place finish and a third. That week, though, he managed only a share of 48th place and was passed by three other players as he fell to 21st on the money list, $8,237 shy of Jeff Gove for that all-important final spot.
And yet, Watson was still given a PGA Tour card for the 2006 campaign.
It involved fate, luck, a little-known Nationwide Tour rule and the butterfly effect that tied them all together.
Earlier in the summer, Jason Gore made a name for himself as the Prince of Pinehurst, contending for a U.S. Open title while still a Nationwide Tour member. Most will recall the final-round 84 that he shot in the last pairing on Sunday that year, but few remember what happened in the aftermath.
Without gaining any sort of PGA Tour status from his three-day jaunt up the leaderboard, Gore went back to competing full-time on the Nationwide circuit. His next appearance was a tie for 10th place – and then something clicked. Gore won the Pete Dye Classic, the Scholarship America Showdown and the Cox Classic in successive starts to claim what was termed a “battlefield promotion” to the big leagues, locking up an instantaneous graduation with his third victory of the season.
Due to those performances, Gore was obviously and easily well inside the top 20 on the Nationwide Tour money list. Many believe it is because of this that officials went 21 deep when handing out PGA Tour cards for the next year.
The truth is that another spot wasn’t made available until mid-September, when Gore continued his winning ways on the PGA Tour, adding a victory at the 84 Lumber Classic. It was due to this win that he no longer needed qualification through the Nationwide circuit, so eligibility was then expanded to include the top-21 on the money list instead.
Which meant that by a whopping $2,680 over Tom Scherrer when the season concluded, Bubba Watson was a PGA Tour member.
And he never looked back.
In his first round as a full-timer, Watson posted a 3-under 67 at the Sony Open, his impressive length already the talk of the town in Honolulu.
“I don't think John Daly or Hank Kuehne or Scott Hend, I don't think they can hang with me when I'm hitting it, if I hit my best,” he said that day. “There's not too many people that can get within shouting distance.”
Watson finished in sole possession of fourth place that week – earning more than he had during the entire previous year on the Nationwide Tour – and added two more top-10s that season to easily keep his card for 2007.
The next three seasons elicited more success for Bubba, not in the form of victories, but in gaining experience and the knowledge that he could compete on the world’s most elite tour, as he finished between 55th and 60th each year.
His major breakthrough came in 2010, when he won the Travelers Championship title for his first career professional victory – anywhere. Watson had never won on the Nationwide circuit nor any other tour, but he wasn’t done with the one. In 2011, Bubba claimed the Farmers Insurance Open and Zurich Classic, becoming one of seven two-win players on the PGA Tour last season.
Now, of course, he’s elevated his status to another stratosphere. Along with his first major championship victory, Watson is now the fourth-ranked player in the world, the highest-ranked American and has likely solidified his place on a second consecutive United States Ryder Cup team.
Don’t look for Gore, who is now back on the Nationwide Tour, to take any credit for his success, though.
“He would have gotten onto the PGA Tour regardless,” Gore explains. “He’s just really good.”
As for Watson, mention Jason Gore’s name and he lights up, instantly recalling the story of how he helped him earn his first PGA Tour card.
“I sent his wife flowers,” Watson said last year with a smile, “and I sent him chocolates – because I knew he’d eat them all.”
If it wasn’t for fate, luck, a little-known rule and a torrid summer from Gore, there’s no telling what would have happened for Watson. Sure, he may have still earned PGA Tour playing privileges and claimed those victories and prevailed at Augusta National this past week.
The thing about the butterfly effect, though, is that you never know what would have taken place without the original butterfly.
Watson may have still found the success he’s enjoying right now. What we do know is that the journey there would have been much different.