'A Little Dog' Has His Days
OAKMONT, Pa. The U.S. Golf Association thinks the main purpose of its Open is to "identity the best golfer" to be America's annual champion. How quaint. The real reason for this U.S. Open at Oakmont is so that Bubba Watson can have a moment in the sun.
Tiger Woods knows Bubba. You should, too. They get up before dawn to play practice rounds together. Watson, who has prodigious talent but has never had a teacher, just wants to learn. When you play left-handed because you mirrored your dad's right-handed swing as a boy -- and Pops could barely break 90 -- you can use all the polish you can get.
"I'm like a little dog following a big dog around, asking him a bunch of questions, yapping at his feet," the 28-year-old Watson said after shooting a 71 to stand in second place, just one shot behind Angel Cabrera of Argentina.
"I figure if I bug him enough, maybe he'll let me play with him. It's great. I watch his mannerisms, everything he does. This week I asked him what he writes in his yardage book on every hole on the green. He lets me do it. I've been lucky so far."
Perhaps Tiger's early-morning rounds with a nervous, poorly focused raw talent who is so obscure he has never won an event on the Nationwide Tour, much less the PGA Tour, tells us as much about Woods -- things we might not expect -- as it does about the open-hearted open-book Watson, the ultimate small-Southern-town Bubba from Bagdad, Fla.
Tiger, you see, just loves playing with somebody who can bomb the driver way past him, then make fun of him and make him laugh.
"I blast it by him every time," chuckles the 6-foot-3, 190-pound Watson, whose 316.6-yard driving average was by far the longest on the PGA Tour last season. "He always talks about his wins, and I always talk about how far I can hit it. The Man wants to hit it past everybody. Doesn't matter. I tell him, 'I can practice and get better and win tournaments. But you can't practice and hit it longer.' But he doesn't listen much."
Both Watson and Woods, who is tied for 13th place five shots behind Cabrera, are the sons of Green Berets. That link appears to run deeper than Woods's sophisticated Stanford polish vs. Watson's rustic roots and eventual matriculation at Faulkner State Community College in Alabama.
"Bagdad is like a piece of heaven; that's what it is," says Watson, who played golf in high school with Heath Slocum and Boo Weekley. No, don't even ask what happens when a Bubba and a Boo get rowdy.
"I could walk to elementary school. It felt like two miles when I was a kid. [Turns out] it's like a couple of blocks. My parents never had locks on their doors. Of course, my dad is like Tiger's dad -- Special Forces. He wants somebody to break in the house and challenge him."
Watson's potential clearly fascinates Woods, who long ago played many practice rounds with Mark O'Meara. O'Meara benefited so much from the competition that he won the Masters and British Open at age 41. Now, Woods seems delighted to see if he can rub off on another unlikely buddy. O'Meara needed confidence. Bubba needs knowledge.
"Bubba's a great kid. I enjoy him a lot," said Woods, whose somber post-round mood immediately broke into a grin as soon as he heard Watson's name. "He has so much talent. If he will just understand how to play strategically, he can be so good. And he doesn't just [hit it long]; he plays shots. He's old school. He does like to shape shots."