On this day nine years ago, Gerry Lester “Bubba” Watson Jr. was a 31-year-old journeyman with no PGA Tour wins, no ice-cream shop, and no stake in a minor-league baseball team.
He was, however, one of the best drivers of the golf ball in the world. He had ranked either first or second in driving distance every year since 2006, and he led the tour in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee in 2010. But Watson’s putting and short game were inconsistent, so while he had accrued a handful of top 10s and a few runner-ups, he had not won.
That changed at the 2010 Travelers Championship. On Sunday at TPC River Highlands, Watson started six behind Justin Rose, who held a three-shot lead after 54 holes. Rose could have won by shooting a mere one-over 71, but he played his final seven holes in four-over, stumbling to a 75 and a T-9 finish. Afterwards, he told the media, “It’s hard to play golf when you feel like you’re going to miss every putt from two feet.”
Rose’s playing partner, Ben Curtis, didn’t acquit himself much better. After pulling even with Rose on the 10th hole, Curtis made a double-bogey on No. 12. He finished T-13.
Meanwhile, Bubba fired a four-under 66 to qualify for a playoff with Corey Pavin and Scott Verplank. At the time, Pavin was 50 years old and serving as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain. He was taking a break from the Champions Tour to scout players for the 2010 team.
The playoff began on the 444-yard 18th hole at TPC River Highlands. Watson and Verplank both had lob-wedge approaches into the green. Pavin had a 3-wood. His tee shot had traveled just 219 yards; Watson’s had gone 320. “The playoff was a little disappointing to me,” Pavin said, after his first-hole elimination. “I kind of popped up a three-wood there and left myself in a pretty precarious spot.”
“Now it’s just time to go back and play with golfers my own age,” he added.
Bubba Watson proceeded to close out Verplank with a par on the 16th hole. “You know, I’ve never had a lesson,” Watson said in his post-win interview, tears in his eyes. “My dad, he took me on the golf course when I was six years old and just told me he was going to be in the woods looking for his ball, so he just told me to take this 9-iron and beat it down the fairway. And now look at me after beating a 9-iron on the fairway, coming from Baghdad, Florida. I never dreamed this.”
“People have different reasons why they want to win,” Watson continued. “You know, I wanted to impress Corey Pavin so I could make the Ryder Cup, but that’s a whole different story. Corey, if you’re listening….”
Pavin ended up using his captain’s picks on Stewart Cink, Rickie Fowler, Zach Johnson, and Tiger Woods. The U.S. team lost 13.5-14.5 at Celtic Manor.
Since 2010, Bubba Watson has won two additional Travelers Championships in equally dramatic fashion. Early in the final round in 2015, Watson found himself behind a tree with 100 yards left. A fan suggested a low 4-iron. Bubba’s reply: “That’s why you’re on that side of the ropes.”
He pulled wedge, hit a towering shot to a few feet, and turned to the gallery. “Who yelled out the 4-iron punch?” The announcers and fans were laughing, but there wasn’t exactly a twinkle in Watson’s eye.
"Low 4-iron under the tree."
"That's why you're on that side of the ropes." 😂@BubbaWatson didn't take this fan's advice… and hit a wedge perfectly over the tree to set up a 🐦 at the 2015 @TravelersChamp.#TOURVault pic.twitter.com/Dfcw3XG3v6
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 18, 2019
Last year, Watson charged from six back—the same margin he overcame in 2010—to win by three shots over a group consisting of Casey, Cink, J. B. Holmes, and Beau Hossler.
Watson is the ultimate horse for a handful of courses. Of his 12 wins, eight have come at three venues: Augusta National (2), Riviera (3), and TPC River Highlands (3). At courses that don’t suit his eye, Bubba betrays an indifference rarely seen in golfers of his caliber. TPC Sawgrass, for instance, has never been a favorite of his, so after his Masters victory in 2012, he simply skipped the Players Championship. Fifth major, indeed.
Today, Gerry Lester Watson Jr. is a lot of things. Owner of Bubba’s Sweet Spot. Adoptive father of two. Noted curmudgeon. Ex-member of the Volvik troops. “Misunderstood genius.” Perennial must-watch on PGA Tour Live. Philanthropist. Member of the defunct parody boy band The Golf Boys. Inspiration to up-by-your-bootstraps late-bloomers everywhere. Two-time major champion.
But when all is said and done, will he also be a Hall of Famer?
Flashback Friday is The Fried Egg’s weekly dive into the fascinating, forgotten details of golf history. For an audio rendition of this week’s installment, listen to the Shotgun Start podcast.