Before he ever hit a single competitive shot this year, Bubba Watson had a plan. Before he reached golf’s pinnacle for the second time in three years, before he chose to alienate himself with a few curious decisions, before he fueled a growing reputation for his ever-vacillating mood swings, before all of the beaming smiles and frustrated frowns and exuberant fist-pumps and mindless temper tantrums, he knew what 2014 would represent. He knew what it would mean to him on a personal level.
“This whole year is about rejoicing,” he said back in January. “When I look back, I have to rejoice on what I have done - what I have done off the course and what I have done on the course. I have been blessed. I've gotten to play the PGA Tour for many years, gotten to win on the PGA Tour. That's what I've got to look at. I can't look at what people say. I can't look at stuff like that. … I just have to rejoice.”
He explained that too often in previous years he’d allowed himself to grow angry on the golf course. He called himself “disgruntled” in clear moments of inward reflection. Whereas the priorities of his peers were largely centered on becoming better golfers, Watson’s list was topped with the goal of becoming a better person. If nothing else, it was an admirable objective.
As the year comes to a close with the man formally known as Gerry Lester Watson, Jr. earning Golf Channel’s No. 9 Newsmaker of 2014, we can point to his three victories – including a second career Masters title – and proclaim the year an unqualified success. Based, though, on his original ambition, this year was never going to be judged solely on wins over losses and birdies over bogeys. This was a year for introspection, a year for personal growth.
And so while most elite players would consider a year that included claiming another green jacket to be the ultimate triumph, Watson assessed himself on less tangible achievements.
“When I look at it in review,” he said during a candid interview last week, “yeah, I had ups and downs – a lot more ups than downs – but I think it was a great year, from a rejoicing standpoint of looking at the positives. Hopefully the positives outweighed the negatives this year. Some years it might be the other way around.”
The highs were extraordinarily high. His Masters win was punctuated by a smile that could have lit up Augusta. Later in the year, a holed bunker shot in Shanghai led to unbridled joy and a WGC victory. In between, his time away from the spotlight was filled with enough charitable efforts to help fulfill that goal of rejoicing.
The lows, though, were particularly low. At the Open Championship, in the midst of missing the cut, he conspicuously took dead aim at the media, insisting that nothing positive was ever said or written about him publicly. The next month, he was outwardly demonstrative during the PGA Championship, refusing to take part in a spirited pre-tournament long-drive competition, then sulking throughout his second round, blaming heavy rain for his poor play.
“My language, my attitude, was going the wrong way,” he admitted months later. “I’m not trying to make excuses. I was terrible at these tournaments. … At the PGA, my ball, because of how hard I hit it – and this isn’t an excuse – but when there’s water on the clubface, it changes the spin. When I’m trying to hit a cut, it doesn’t cut. A lot of people thought I was yelling at [caddie] Teddy [Scott], but I was just yelling to him, telling him I couldn’t hit it.”
There are those who admire Watson not just for his long-hitting prowess, but for his ability to wear this emotion like a battle scar. In the stoic world of golf, where so many other competitors treat their jobs with more precision than passion, he is a welcomed diversion. Like him or dislike him – and yes, there are many who dislike him, ironically, for the very same reason – his polarizing effect is unquestioned.
Not that he cares. Watson insists he no longer keeps tabs on social media and isn’t trying to win friends and influence people. For him, this year was built on a journey of self-discovery – before he ever struck his first shot.
“How did I improve as a person? How did I improve as a golfer?” he asks himself. “Mentally, I think I’ve gotten better. … But I still have to keep going.”
In a game that too often reeks of infallibility, Watson remains a perpetual newsmaker for being its perfect imperfection.