One of the cheap thrills in life is being able to obtain an Inside The Ropes media credential. This allows you to follow any group you want in an up close and personal way. The basic restriction is that you have to stay within an arm’s length of the rope line; you aren’t supposed to be the show, the players are.
But what that allows you to do is be very close to them on their tee shots and move as fast as they do across the golf course, a vital privilege with the large crowds at the Waste Management Phoenix Open at the TPC of Scottsdale in Scottsdale, Arizona. As fun as the famous 16th hole is, before I became a big-media maven (a former professional player who asked insightful questions of the players in the interview room and wrote cogently about them), I would only be able to follow the players through the bleachers. And once they finished putting out, it took so long to get out of the bleachers and around the coliseum that I wouldn’t be able to catch them again until they were halfway down the 17th hole.
So Thursday, I had the dream group of Bubba Watson, Gary Woodland and my Monday qualifying hero and now two-time winner, Patrick Reed.
Bubba ended up as a co-leader with Y.E. Yang at 7-under with just one bogey on the card. Woodland got so furious with himself when he drove it into the lake on 15, that he ripped his glove off his hand in two pieces. It was a reflexive action in the moment that I didn’t even know was possible. He still finished at 4-under with just two bogies.
And Reed, well watch out for him. He had the putting day from hell in the early going and with two bogies and a lot of missed makeable putts, was just even or 1-over through the 12th. But then he birdied the par-5 13th and the par-5 15th.
Then he got booed at 16 as his perfect tee shot hit pin high at the back left pin and slowly rolled off the back of the green and into the swale below. And again when he flew his pitch shot up onto the green but without enough backspin to stop until it was 16 feet by the hole. And then he was treated to raucous cheers and applause when he made the putt for par.
On the short, 332-yard, par-4 17th, he drove the green to 20 feet and made the putt for eagle, and on 18, hit it to 2 feet and “walked off” with a birdie and a nifty 4-under for the day. That’s the kind of toughness that Monday qualifying gives you — never give up and keep making birdies — and it was amazing to watch. I wanted a word with him outside of the scoring trailer, but some other media maven snatched him away and whisked him around to the front of the clubhouse.
So that gave me the opportunity to listen in to Bubba Watson’s stand-up Golf Channel 3-minute interview, his stand-up ESPN 2-minute interview and his stand-up 3-minute local tv scrum interview (you can’t believe how close they get the cameras to his face, something that surprised me when I was interviewed years ago in Park City, Utah) and then follow him down into the Media Center interview room. (The Media Center is in the completely transformed cart barn under the clubhouse; I have no idea where the course’s cart fleet is stored or where they charge the tournament’s and media’s work carts.)
Bubba Watson has a history of acting the carefree fool, romping around with his man-toys, never practicing but playing golf every day because he loves it and generally speaking in a way that proclaims that a carefree, fun life is what he’s all about.
I say a lot of that changed when he played in the French Open in Paris and was ostracized for his insensitive ignorance about such things as the Eiffel Tower. He made no friends with his uncomfortable longing for home. The blowback was immediate and forceful and surprised him a bit. But he took it all in, was humbled and very apologetic; it was a sobering event for him.
And I think the other thing that changed all of that was when he and Angie adopted their little boy to whom he is relentlessly devoted. His early conversations became sprinkled with “My son…my son…my son.” It was refreshing and inspiring to see his sense of responsibility catch up to his soaring golf talent; a well-balanced renaissance man.
And that came out in his interview Thursday. Asked by the moderator to expand on his comments in the stand-ups about how he just wanted to “go out there and have fun,” he was very introspective:
To bore you all with my information, this whole year is about rejoice. So 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, you’re putting bad, you never hit a straight shot, you’re terrible, you never hit the fairway. I can’t look at stuff like that. I think about that myself. I don’t need anybody else to tell me that.
So I just have to rejoice. That’s what this whole year is about, trying to rejoice, my team, and think about that. And I can think of a quote from the Bible. I think it’s Philippians 4:11 that says, “I’m not in need. I’m content with my circumstances.”
So that’s where I’m at right now and trying to be that way. If golf is good, it’s good. If it’s bad, it’s bad. I have a job for the next couple of years.
Asked where “that stuff” comes from, not winning last year or from being criticized, he flashed the thing that saved him during his Paris contretemps, his religion:
No, you know, truthfully it’s me trying to become, you know, a stronger, devout Christian. Golf just happens to be what I do to help me for my charity endeavors. So, you know, it’s fun for me.
I play golf every day. You know, when I’m not at a golf tournament, I’m playing every day with the members at my course. I’m having fun with it. I love it. I love the game of golf.
That’s what I’ve got to do is just rejoice. So, for me, it’s about off the course. On the course I have to act the same way I do off the course. Off the course, I don’t get angry. I don’t flip out. On the course for the last few years, you know, I have showed anger, showed me being disgruntled. That’s not the way I should be portraying myself.
Having my son, I don’t want my son to see stuff like that. So right now I have a few years before he knows what I’m doing, so I have a few years to practice and get better.
Asked if all of the distractions, controversies and having his son required any adjustments on his part:
For sure. If you look at my career, through all my career, from junior golf to college golf, to mini-tours to now the Web.com Tour, to the PGA Tour, I got to a level and I got out of my comfort zone. I get comfortable, and then I step up a new level and I get nervous again.
So, you know, for five years I played on the tour without winning. Then I won real fast. It’s different. The media actually wants to hear what I have to say. Then winning the Masters, hitting the hook [out of the trees on the first playoff hole], it changes.
Then having a son at the same time I won the Masters, you’re figuring out life, and figuring out life with my wife and my son, and then at the same time you’re trying to figure out the golf course with all the attention after having that green jacket on you.
Yeah, you’re always trying to get better and learn. So, you know, now hopefully I’m at a steppingstone where I’ve learned. Now if I win a few more, I get nervous again. Right now I’m in a good spot.
Yes, he is. And it almost brings tears of joy to have watched his transformation.