Tour Confidential: Does Bubba Watson Get Enough Credit as Elite?

February 22, 2016

Every Sunday night, GOLF.com conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Bubba Watson held off Jason Kokrak and Adam Scott at the Northern Trust Open on Sunday to pick up his ninth PGA Tour title since 2010. In that stretch, only Rory McIlroy has won more times (10) on Tour. Does Bubba get enough credit for what he’s achieved in such a short period? 

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Not even close. His record is tremendous but often overshadowed by his personality quirks. Hopefully he’ll just shut up and play so the golf world can better appreciate his unusual genius.

Josh Sens, contributing writer, GOLF Magazine (@JoshSens): No doubt, as Alan says, the personality has soured perceptions. There’s also the style of game he plays. When you have the sort of arsenal of shots Bubba has, combined with nuclear power off the tee, there’s an expectation that you should win your share, particularly on certain courses. So there is a certain feeling that Bubba is just doing what Bubba should be doing. 

SCORES: View the Final Leaderboard from Northern Trust Open

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Sadly, the possibility that he just shut up and play golf has come and gone. How many times have we been down this road. Regardless, it’s a treat to watch him think his way around the golf course, especially on a track like Riviera. 

Cameron Morfit, senior writer, GOLF Magazine (@CameronMorfit): I never expected Bubba to be doing what he’s doing. He didn’t win in college, didn’t win on the Web.com, and is one of the more temperamental talents I’ve ever seen. I thought his psyche was far too delicate to hold up under late-Sunday pressure. And yet here he is, having turned into a prolific winner on the PGA Tour. Say what you want about Bubba the person, but you’ve got to respect his ability to close.

Joe Passov, senior editor, Golf Magazine (@joepassov): Alan, you said it, and said it perfectly. He has such genius for hitting a golf ball. I absolutely love watching him hit a golf ball, and watching him contend at a tournament. Everything else, not so much. Why do I keep hearing how much he’s “matured” off the course, with his family additions, and then he goes and says what he did in Phoenix–“I can’t stand the renovations to TPC Scottsdale and wouldn’t be here at all except for three great sponsors here.” And he’s finished second the previous two years? Are we supposed to fawn over his honesty? Not me. I don’t go to somebody’s party and announce publicly, “the meat was overcooked, the appetizers second-rate and the decor dated. But thanks for having me.”

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): His skills are definitely underrated. Bubba will gaffe the occasional short-game shot but then he’ll pull off three Mickelson-esque shots that amaze you. He also putts it well most of the time, better than you think. If he could find consistency, he’d be remarkable, but then he wouldn’t be Bubba.

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): The other reason he’s underrated, besides that prickly disposition, is his continued disappearance in majors outside of Augusta. Win one of those other three, and I think he takes that final step forward to superstardom, not to mention the Hall of Fame. 


2. How much should we read into Jordan Spieth’s first-round 79 and missed cut at Riviera? Is it likely just a blip on the radar, or evidence that with all the expectations on Spieth’s shoulders that he might struggle this year to match the exceptional form he exhibited in 2015? 

Sens: No more than you would read into a straight one-footer. A blip. Yes, there will be ridiculously high expectations for Spieth this year, but he’s already won this season, so it’s not as if he’s been shrinking from them. There were also some pretty weighty expectations for him last year after he won the first two majors and, hold on, just consulting my spreadsheet, he didn’t exactly tank the rest of the way then either. 

Shipnuck: I agree it’s not a big deal by itself but there have been some troubling signs the last couple of months as Spieth has struggled with fatigue and his attitude. The Florida swing starts next week, which means it’s time to start peaking for Augusta. Instead, Spieth seems like he’s dragging. Last season was an endless grind and then his off-season galavanting now seems highly ill-advised. I just hope Spieth can get refocused and refreshed.

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Morfit: I agree that his attitude is troubling—even Spieth admits he has been getting down on himself an awful lot lately. Just a guess: He may be over-golfed, simple as that. I expect him to start playing like himself again just as soon as he gets the hunger to be out there again.

Passov: It would be a weird time to take a break, but it looks like Spieth needs one. Still, he’s so likeable, so good for our game, that you want to root for him. I hope he calendars more wisely in the future. Yes, there are some warning signs afoot, but undoubtedly fixable with the proper pacing.

Godich: I’m going to pronounce Spieth rested and ready the next time he tees it up at Doral. He showed a spark in the final round at Pebble, and he showed some fight at Riviera on Friday, when it would have been easy to mail it in. The Masters is still six weeks away, so he’ll have plenty of time to get his game in shape. And let’s not forget what happened the last time he showed up at an event rested: He showed up at Kapalua, treated the week as a working holiday and proceeded to lap the field.

Ritter: Spieth is carrying more than just extra jetlag: it’s the weight of expectations. This is the first time he’s entered a season as a star, and that can scramble a golfer’s routine for a bit. He’ll be fine, but I do wonder if we’re witnessing the start of an adjustment period. Would it be all that shocking if he didn’t win a major this year? 

Van Sickle: It’s stunning that a guy who won $22 million on the course last year would chase the money that hard. Maybe when you’re 22, you’re pretty sure you’re invincible. I can’t quite remember that far back. He’ll be fine, eventually. I just wonder if he’ll be fine by the Masters.

3. Tiger Woods’ agent, Mark Steinberg, told ESPN on Friday that he has no update on his star client’s recovery, or when we might see him tee it up next. Do you think golf fans will reach a point this season where they start to miss Tiger, or are we beyond that point? 

Shipnuck: Can we do both at the same time? Obviously the game has moved on and we have a whole new batch of immensely appealing stars. But, gawd, how fun would it be to see them battle an in-form Tiger? 

Sens: To quote Grumpy Cat: absence makes the heart grow fonder. Of your absence. The longer he’s away, the more we realize that life goes on without him. But agreed. Imagine Tiger, Rory, Spieth and Co. all in contention on Sunday at Augusta. Those two minutes-per-hour of commercial interruption would feel like an eternity. 

Morfit: I can’t believe it was only 2013 when he won five times in 16 starts. It seems like a lifetime ago. Do I miss him? Not really, but there are moments and places where the ghost of Tiger lingers. It’s pretty much impossible to wander around Torrey Pines and not think of him. It’ll be hard not to think of him at Augusta. Mostly, though, life goes on. 

Passov: Come on, Cam: don’t you miss him a little? Rory does. He said so a couple of weeks ago, wishing for that one opportunity, somehow, where he could duel head-to-head with Tiger in a major. I miss him. Today early on, there was this brief moment at Riviera when Bubba, Rory, DJ and Adam Scott were tied in the top spot. Wow! Tough to beat that, even with Rickie and Jason. Yet, if Tiger were there—and maybe Phil—different feeling, different level. Maybe I’m just getting old.

Morfit: Joe, I’d love to see a Tiger comeback, but I’m not holding my breath. Nor do I think that golf is, to use the British slang, gagging for it. He was a force of nature, a once-in-a-lifetime event. His battles with Phil were epic. They are also, almost certainly, over.

Van Sickle: Golf doesn’t need Tiger any more and if it does, it’s got an even worse problem than we thought. Time marches on in every sport. Maybe Tiger returns for some encores, maybe he doesn’t. We’d all rather see him finish on his own terms rather than succumb to injuries but that, too, is the way of sports.

Ritter: Great point, Gary. If nothing else, it would be fun for fans, and good for the game, if Woods could get well enough to receive a proper farewell. Doesn’t mean he has to play winning golf, just competitive, non-injury wracked golf that is’t painful to watch, like last year.

Godich: It’s amazing the way Tiger has fallen off the radar. It used to be that 30 minutes of broadcast time couldn’t pass without him being mentioned. I can’t remember the last time I heard his name dropped. 


4. Brandel Chamblee sparked a social media firestorm when he questioned Rory McIlroy’s weightlifting regimen, suggesting too much time in the gym might cause McIlroy physical problems down the road. Are you buying Chamblee’s take, or could improved sports science actually prolong the careers of modern Tour players?

Sens: On the one hand, Brandel’s got a lot of airtime to fill up. On the other, he was right about Tiger and his pursuit of a yacht body. There are clear downsides to overdoing it in the gym. But even so, I can’t imagine Rory is going to go down some reckless route in the pursuit of six pack abs. Nor would the people around him let him slip down some crazy path. The science is out there, and of course it can help prolong the careers of modern players. Rory has said it’s all performance and injury prevention for him, and I don’t see any reason to question that. Now, if he can just get his putting straight. 

Shipuck: Rory knows his body better, and I’m assuming he has really smart people advising him, but pushing heavy metal definitely takes a toll. He’s strong enough now to maintain stability throughout his swing. I’d rather see him doing yoga than pumping iron. That would definitely keep him healthy, flexible and supple.

Morfit: I agree with Alan (and Gary Player) on the importance of stretching and flexibility. It’s also pretty well established that weightlifting can be addictive, for various reasons, and counterproductive, for other reasons. But I’m going to leave Rory’s body to Rory, and assume he knows all of this. 

Godich: How much farther does he need to hit it? I’m with Alan. It’s a matter of staying flexible enough to keep the back healthy. 

Van Sickle: I think Brandel’s point was worth noting, which is why I have decided to back down from my workout regime and cancel my plans to compete for Mr. Universe this year. I suggest Rory do likewise.

Passov: Was it Rory’s ex-, Caroline [Wozniacki], that got him so heavily invested in the fitness thing? I’m not the expert, here, but strength seems to be a ticket to success in modern golf, provided it doesn’t mess with your flexibility and suppleness. That’s the lesson learned by Johnny Miller in the late 1970s, when all his off-season wood chopping made him stronger, but he lost the smoothness in his swing. Still, I feel it’s perfect fodder for conversation and debate, and good for Brandel for bringing it up.

Morfit: I find that a rigorous diet of off-season wood-chopping helps my writing, too, for what it’s worth.

Passov: Fair point. I’m in Phoenix, however. We chop tumbleweed.

5. Kenny Perry told Golfweek that he doesn’t “think anything on the Champions Tour means anything to anybody. The media, golf fans, they look at us as a freak show.” What do you make of Perry’s characterization of the senior circuit?

Sens: I agree that the average fan isn’t riveted by the Champions Tour but “freak show” seems like the wrong analogy. I think of it as light-hearted entertainment, with an occasional whiff of nostalgia, like watching a Saturday night rerun of your favorite 70s sitcom.

Morfit: A freak show is when you watch a guy drive a nail up his nose or put a cigar out on his tongue. It’s definitely not that. I also don’t think it’s right that nobody is paying attention. If you asked golf fans to name two or three guys who have absolutely torn it up on the senior circuit, I’ll bet a lot of them could name Hale Irwin, Bernhard Langer and/or Lee Trevino. Is anything they do going to lead SportsCenter? No, probably not … unless Langer hires Timberlake or Trump to carry his bag.

Shipnuck: Yeah, as Josh says it’s all about what your expectations are. Will it be an intense competition? Obviously not. But it’s a fun vibe with some big personalities and the shotmaking is surprisingly good. 

Passov: Josh, I’m with you on the Saturday night 70s sitcom reruns, but the problem is when it’s too much Three’s Company and not enough All in the Family. The former was so airy as to be transparent. You forgot it 10 seconds after it ended. The Champions Tour could and should be better than it is. The names are still solid (if lacking a few superstars) and the quality of play terrific. It just needs a little more stuff we care about: rivalries, legendary courses and such. It won’t catapult it into must-see TV, as when Nicklaus and Trevino were at it in the early 1990s, but it could be just more compelling.

Van Sickle: PGA Tour Champions, as it’s now properly called (and I hate it), has always been based on the superstar system. Tom Watson was the last superstar and he’s not winning anymore. Greg Norman was the next superstar the public could’ve latched onto but for various reasons, including injuries, he gave it only a brief try. Who’s next up to carry the tour? John Daly? Phil Mickelson is five years away and somehow I don’t seem him being as interested in the tour as Kenny Perry is.

Ritter: Daly does have some crossover appeal. He won’t have to win out there; his presence alone would add juice. And anytime Kenny Perry wants to compare the tour to a freak show, he’ll be able to point to Daly’s golf pants. 

Godich: At last check, Perry had pocketed more than $7 million on the Champions tour. Some freak show. I’d be stunned if Daly adds any juice, and even if he does, the novelty will wear off quickly. I can’t imagine him being popular among the players either. As for the tour itself, sure, the golf is outstanding, but if I’m a senior I’d simply be grateful that the folks in Ponte Vedra Beach set up such a lucrative annuity. To borrow from a 14-time time major champion, this tour is what it is.

The Tour Confidential roundtable continues Monday on our new weekly show hosted by Jessica Marksbury. Tweet her your questions @Jess_Marksbury.