Bubba Watson Sets Sail On A New Journey In The LIV League

Bubba WatsonPhoto Credit: Nick Garcia



BUBBA WATSON IS DISTRAUGHT. Although the two-time Masters champion has been completely chill for the duration of our shoot in his hometown of Pensacola, Florida, the minute our chat ends, his calm dissolves … with reason. He’s just discovered that the neighborhood ice cream truck has come and gone, and that his friends, who were waiting outside, did not help a brother out.

“You could have texted me!” he moans woefully as Gabe Sauer, his caddie, taunts him with images of his (now long gone) chocolate and vanilla swirl. Business partner and best friend of 30+ years, Randall Wells, doesn’t flaunt his personal soft serve indulgence — only owning up to it when asked directly like a real BFF would. “We did,” he says mildly. “Someone didn’t check his phone.”

Watson accordingly hams up his sadness, lamenting the ice cream lost. And yet, underneath, there’s a tinge of genuine disappointment, which I completely understand given that the reason we missed Mister Softee is, ironically, because we’ve just spent the last five minutes delving into his deep and abiding lifetime love of sugar.

“At least you own a candy store,” I remind him gently, and am rewarded with a smile.

The sun has come out from behind the clouds once again. (Which is, incidentally, a metaphor for much more than the mercurial local weather). Watson knows that, in under 10 minutes, he could be walking into Bubba’s Sweet Spot, indulging in all the ice cream his heart desires, as well as chick-o-sticks, birthday cake fudge, and bottle caps galore.

Unsurprisingly, of all the local businesses he owns (which include a Chevrolet dealership, the Pensacola Golf Center, and the Minor League baseball team the Pensacola Blue Wahoos, of which he is a co-owner), this is his favorite venture given that it satiates his sense of childlike wonder along with his sweet tooth.

“When I go to [Bubba’s Sweet Spot] I get as giddy as my kids. I try to play it cool, but I’m excited,” he admits, noting, “They have free samples available on the counter, and every time I go, I say the same thing to the workers: ‘Hey, can I try these samples?’ My wife gets so mad. She’s like, ‘You own the store, why do you always have to say that every time we come in?’ and I’m like, ‘Because it’s fun for me!’ Whenever I’m there, I feel like a kid again. Candy makes me feel that way, too.”

Maybe it’s because sugar is his only vice (he does not nor has he ever consumed alcohol or smoked anything other than candy cigarettes), but there’s something about the 43-year-old golfer that seems perpetually youthful. When he changes out of his collegiate comfort arrival outfit — a long-sleeved, hooded gray Linksoul shirt and board shorts — into two suits his wife picked out for the shoot, the way he uncomfortably tugs at his collar, coupled with his newly-shorn hair and stubble-free cheeks, somehow endearingly reminds me of grade school picture day. [What does not: three Richard Mille timepieces with a collective value that tops $2 million, inclusive of his new, self-named, bubblegum-pink-and-white-striped Manual Winding Tourbillon Bubba Watson RM 38-02, and a collector’s treasure trove of Air Jordans, such as the Jordan 1 Retro High Travis Scott editions.]

But although there may be childlike elements to his existence, Watson is most definitely an adult, and one who has made the welfare of children a priority throughout his life.

Which brings us, in a circuitous way, to the subject du jour: Naples. The self-titled “Golf Capital of the World,” which has the second most holes per capita, and the most holes of any city in Florida, is an important part of our conversation — this being our inaugural issue, and all.
His favorite memory of playing in said city specifically pertains to children, as it happens, while playing in his second of six QBE “Shark” Shootouts (an event named for and a course designed by current LIV League President, Greg Norman) at the Ritz-Carlton Tiburón Golf Resort back in 2010. While a torn meniscus, ensuing rehab, and his decision to join LIV now precludes him from playing in the PGA Tour event, Watson will always have a soft spot for Naples. After all, it was, most notably, where he first became “Bubba Claus.” (Yes, you read that right. “Bubba Claus” — as in, Bubba Watson, wearing a Santa suit, doing what he does best: playing golf and giving back. Don’t know it? You should, especially because it’s also the title of a now-viral rap song.) Even so, I ask him to take me back in time. He obliges, recalling the moment when he and fellow pro Rickie Fowler decided to spread some seasonal joy. 

The two had gone to Walmart and picked up a twinning pair of Santa Claus suits just because. “We weren’t playing very well when we warmed up that morning, and [continued to not play well the rest of the day: we tied for last place that year],” Watson remembers of his then 32-year-old self. “But on the 18th hole, we decided to put the suits on anyway to cheer ourselves up. We passed out candy canes to kids, throwing them out like we were in a parade. It’s truly my fondest memory, because that’s where I had the idea of becoming Bubba Claus, giving away stuff on Christmas and on the 12 days leading up to it, and we’ve done it every year since [in conjunction with the Bubba Watson Foundation].”

Naples is a place he’ll happily return to time and time again, and not just because he has fond memories of days past, either. “There are many things I love about Naples. When I think about [that city], I think about cars, boats, and golf: all of which I love. The boats I mean aren’t like the kind I have [he owns two small blue motorboats], but yachts, which to me are like private, floating houses. I think of Mercedes, Lamborghinis, BMWs, Ferraris, Bentleys. And when it comes to golf, it’s like you can almost play a new course every day for six months. That’s what it feels like, at least. Any time I go down there, I know there’s going to be sunny weather, golf, and great places to eat. Plus, it’s in Florida — and as everyone knows, I’m a sucker for Florida.” (Sidebar: When Watson says he’s a sucker for great places to eat, what he really means is that he’s a creature of habit and tends to stick to one spot consistently in each city, and in Naples, that spot is True Food Kitchen — a restaurant he claims to eat at so often that the servers already know his favorite dishes).

There are two additional things he does when visiting the coastal city: frozen yogurt, a mandatory need (see: sweet tooth, above) — anywhere will do — and, surprisingly, mini golf. In Naples, his go-to is the Coral Cay Adventure Park, though he touts nearby Madeira Beach’s Smugglers Cove Adventure Park and Fort Myers’ Congo River Golf, with its live alligator feedings, as other top picks.

Bubba WatsonPhoto Credit: Nick Garcia

I know that when I ask him if he always wins it’s a stupid question, but I thought he might* give it up to his kids to boost their self-esteem, or occasionally let Angie, his wife of 18 years, win. But when he plays putt-putt, he says he’s predominantly playing with his pals, or other pros, like Fowler.

OK, now I feel safe about asking the “Do you beat him?” question again. And it’s the same answer:

“Well yeah,” he says (like duh, obviously!), “but now, it’s a real competition.” He adds, “Some guys will even want to bring their own putter, their actual club, and I’m like, no way! You’ve got to use what they have. You don’t get to bring in your own putter… this is real putt-putt!”

I’d have suggested a putt-putt league, but after two stupid questions, I wouldn’t dare. Plus, as mentioned, Watson already has a new league. He made the announcement that he’d decided to part ways with PGA and get ready for LIV two days before our interview.

I ask for clarification on a comment he made for the rationale behind his decision, having said his “wife loved it.”

He responds, “It’s funny you brought that up, because she asked me that same question last night. I told her that I don’t ever read articles about myself or the family, because what you read on the internet is not always true. I don’t know if you know that?” he jokes, adding, “So yeah, I worded it a little wrong. I said that she loved the idea, but I should have said that she liked the idea. Word choice can change the meaning of something fast. But [my wife] was an athlete: she played four years of professional basketball overseas in Turkey, France, and in Italy, too, as well as one year in Charlotte with the WNBA. She’s cultured, has experienced different cultures. So when I went to Saudi Arabia earlier this year, and they pitched the idea to me, I was like, man, I just don’t know. I’m really liking the PGA Tour; I’m really good on it, good on the PGA Tour. I’ve had a blast for the last 16 years.”

But then: “I started digging into the concept of the franchises, owning a team. Me, as a kid from Bagdad, Florida, I didn’t grow up with much money, and now you’re telling me I have a chance to be part of this organization that’s like baseball, or football, or basketball — now golf is going to try to do this. And then I thought, to bring it back: helping. I want to help kids. And so when I think about the money, and how I can use it to support a community — the better I do, the more impact I can have, such as helping kids around Pensacola with our Junior Golf Program. We’ve been wanting to build a village in Guatemala. There are a lot of things that LIV Golf gives me the opportunity to do, and more time to do it with only 14 events. So we put a lot of thought into it, a lot of prayer, a lot of asking around, and it just makes sense for us.”

He says that with more time and more money, he and his wife will be able to do more and more good along with it. She wants to coach basketball at a local Christian school that their children will attend, and he, in turn, wants to support up-and-coming golfers.

“We can go bigger picture,” he declares. “Hopefully I can influence three golfers that are younger than me, help them on the course and in life, and then we can start inviting junior golfers to more events, and let them interact with us, see things, and give them hopes and dreams like I had. I watched my greats, and then somehow became one of those guys.”

He cites Payne Stewart, who passed away in a plane crash in 1999, and Tiger Woods, who won the Masters the same year he himself graduated from high school (1997) as among his heroes, before adding, “So LIV Golf gives me opportunities to do things that I’ve never dreamed I’d be able to do or have a chance to do. There was a lot going into it, not just money, that impacted this decision. I’ve been blessed my whole life on that front, so I’m good, but there’s a lot more to it, I promise you, a lot more the public doesn’t know yet because it hasn’t come out yet, about franchises and what that means. We’re going to start having teams like the New York Yankees or the New York Mets, the Denver Broncos. It’s going to start being like that, where you pull for your team, and hopefully it goes. If it doesn’t, at least I tried. I tried something off the wall, and I tried to be part of something great.”

In golf terminology, Watson is saying this: joining LIV might be akin to taking a mulligan. But it could also be a unicorn. Either way, he’s giving it his best shot and he’s planning on scoring big.

Bubba WatsonPhoto Credit: Nick Garcia

GERRY LESTER WATSON JR. — best known as Bubba Watson — is the epitome of a trooper. His bum leg, shod in a full-length brace, is stiff, but he gamely walks up and down stairs during our cover shoot (which he would prefer to call a “capture”), easily noting, “It’s OK. I need to work it out.”

Watson announced his knee injury in May, but it’s kept him sidelined much longer than he imagined. But he’s been putting in the work to let the healing begin, and he’s hopeful that, come October, he’ll be in fighting form to hit the green once again — but in truth, January is more likely.
“As we sit here today, [nine weeks post-surgery, my injury] is healed up — everything that I’ve had surgically repaired or messed with. I lost a lot of quad muscle and scar tissue as well, so now we’re just trying to get it to bend. But mentally I want to be one hundred percent. I want to trust the leg before I start twisting and turning. I don’t want to ever have a doubt that I’m not ready. October to November is about six months after the surgery. When I get there, I know I’ll be ready.”

One of the biggest downsides is that, for a while, he couldn’t tuck his kids, Caleb, 10, and Dakota, 8, into bed, disrupting their nightly routine. He says goodnight to his daughter first, and then his son; his wife does the same, separately. But for the first month, there could be no weight bearing on the injury; he couldn’t let it touch the ground. If he did walk, it was in a brace that kept his leg straight, and then crutches. He was confined to bed before gradually moving around the house, and could only say prayers for his children from bed. But on the flip side, while there might have been slightly too much Netflix and Amazon Prime, he was able to do it with his kids in bed beside him. They were able to watch a lot of baseball, play a lot of games, and, most importantly, spend a lot of time with their dad. All the same, he’s glad to be mobile. “Now that dad can walk around, life is much easier now,” he notes. 

In more ways than one, it would appear. Last fall, Watson released his memoir Up and Down: Victories and Struggles in the Course of Life, surprising the nation by sharing the truth: that, while he was still the golf prodigy from the Gulf Coast — a big-hitting left-hander who preferred to play with a pink driver, a 12-time PGA Tour winner who also competed in the Olympics and rose to become the number two golfer in the world — he was also the guy who almost let the game he loved break him. His fame came at a price: Watson felt that he was never quite good enough, and the constant social criticism from fans and critics alike began to take a toll. So he wrote a book as his catharsis, opening up about his debilitating anxiety attacks and feelings of inadequacy, and how his faith in God, the love of his wife, and getting the heck off the internet saved him.

“I wrote a book on my mental problems, so there’s a book out there that talks about my issues,” he says now. “It was about my life, about winning the Masters in 2012, about my kids, and my parents; about how we look forward and backward. It was also about my downfall: how I started letting the internet, social media, world ranking, tour rankings, the FedEx Cup, trying to make the Olympics in ’16, start dictating my life, my worth, my worth in life. Even though I was helping people, had some cool businesses, was making money, had my own [branded Richard Mille] watch, there was still stuff dictating my life, a dark space in my head. So I wrote a book to get stuff off my chest.

Bubba WatsonPhoto Credit: Nick Garcia

“And I’ll let you in on a secret,” he confides. “The first chapter [highlights] my low point. I dropped down to 162 pounds. The doctor kept saying, ‘Bubba, there’s nothing wrong with you.’ I was like, ‘Look, man, I went from 195 pounds to 162 pounds — there’s something wrong with me.’ They kept telling me everything was great. But then we found out that anxiety and stress was eating me up inside. And I’ll never forget this: I dropped to my knees and said, ‘God, help me. I know there’s something wrong. If this is the end, just take me. I don’t want to be here, I don’t want my family to see me like this.”

But he did get up, and remembered that he had a person who loved him unconditionally, his “soulmate,” a woman he would move mountains for. Angie, a 6’3” Canadian former basketball player, told him she couldn’t have children on their first date, and even despite his own yearning for a family, he knew instantly that not only was she the one, but that he would happily adopt (which they did); that he would give up everything for her [including, but not limited to, another great love of his life — a lime green Lamborghini that he bought as a to-me, from-me gift for finally getting his degree from the University of Georgia in 2008, seven years after dropping out to play golf. He drove said whip for three glorious months before his wife asked him to give it up, as it was far too recognizable in their small coastal city. Thus, his personal collection currently includes a Jeep Wrangler, a Chevrolet Suburban, and a Chevrolet Tahoe, which he drives his squad in to our shoot, with the new GMC Hummer EV on its way]. He even got her name tattooed on his ring finger because wearing a ring while playing golf is impossible. And so, he finally let her see the part of him he had been hiding — what he perceived then to be weakness.

“I remember she was in the kitchen, and I walked in there, said ‘I’m sorry’ and then just told her everything: what I was afraid of, that I didn’t want to be famous, I didn’t want to do this, I didn’t want to do that, I just want to be a dad, I just want to be a husband, I just want to play golf,” he recalls.

In the end, it was his saving grace. “I was afraid to communicate that I wasn’t this great public figure, that I wasn’t the person the world had built me up to be. When you get married, that should be the greatest moment, because now you have somebody beside you, to ride with you, to love you, to care about you, to be there for you. I had that, but I was too scared to admit I needed help. Angie knows me better than anybody, but it was only when I started really communicating with her that I felt free. Writing that book freed me, too, where it was finally like, You know what? I’m just going to tell the world I’m not this great celebrity or whatever you want to call yourself — I’m just a guy trying to make it through life, and life can be hard.”

Here, Watson tears up, and it’s not the first time during our chat that he does so, either. Now that he’s admitted the truth — to himself and to others, that he’s discovered just how beautiful self-acceptance and self-love can be — he finally realizes that there is nothing wrong with being himself, with showing how he feels, and it’s a beautiful thing to witness. Now that he’s freed himself from the opinions of people on the  internet (and he has: he never even checks his email anymore, never mind the world wide web), he’s also found there’s actually more time to dedicate to the most important things in life: his family, his friends, and Pensacola — the shiny “big city” he dreamed of living in as a kid growing up in the 1,500-person-town of Bagdad 20 miles to the north.

“As a kid, I had so many dreams. I wanted to be a professional golfer, I wanted to own a team [so in 2015, I bought the Blue Wahoos]. I never had a dream of being in the Olympics, but then out of nowhere in 2016, golf was back in the Olympics and I made the team. I bought the candy shop because I like candy. My right-hand man Randall, his college job was at the driving range, and someone was going to let it go, so we bought it, and we just love it. It’s not about money for me; it’s about doing things that I want to do because I like them, because they’re fun, but mostly I do them because I want to help others.”

This is an important subject to him, and he has an emotional response. As his eyes well up, he explains, “Golf has always taught me to give back, and I want to help, especially here in my hometown where I was born and raised. My wife and I left for many years, but when we moved back in 2015, I said I want to be part of the city. I don’t want to just be a guy that just floats, so that’s why we’ve chosen to do the things that we’ve done.”

He pauses. “I know I’m like a broken record, but when I think about my life — that the highest-end watch you can possibly get has my name on it; that I’ve won the Masters; all of the cars and houses I’ve bought; where I grew up; where I come from; the two parents that I had; my beautiful wife of 18 years; two beautiful kids — I know I’m blessed. So why would I not want to help other people, and at the same time, have fun with it?”
And now I finally understand why Bubba Watson owns a candy store, and why he’s addicted to sugar. Because no matter how tough life gets — for himself or for others — it’s a constant and tangible reminder that there will be sweetness once again.

Bubba WatsonPhoto Credit: Nick Garcia