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Bubba Watson — The Artist of Augusta

by Alex Urban | University of Georgia

F Posted in: Sports and Culture, Voices P Posted on: April 9, 2012
Alex Urban NEW Alex Urban

Chalk up a win for those that march to the beat of a different drum. With his triumph at the Masters yesterday, Bubba Watson proved that the conventional route is not always the best one.

Bubba Watson doesn’t follow many traditional golf rules. He is slightly eccentric, emotional, has self-diagnosed ADD and has never had a professional golf lesson. Not exactly the qualities of your typical major champion. But now he has one thing that validates his approach — a green jacket.

Bubba Watson grew up in Bagdad, Fla. and began to play the game of golf at the age of six, hitting golf balls around his backyard with one of his dad’s old, cut down clubs. Once a child shows an affinity for the game, the normal course of action for most eventual professional golfers is to have lessons starting at a young age to make sure the swing develops correctly and provides a solid framework for the future. Apparently nobody sent this memo to Watson, who has only received one lesson in his life, from his father.

In an age where golf swings are micro-managed and examined through video, Watson is his own swing coach. Through trial and error, repetition, talent and determination, Watson has figured out what moves need to be made to hit draws, fades, slices and hooks — like the brilliant hook-approach on the second playoff hole (the 10th hole at Augusta) that helped him beat Louis Oosthuizen and claim his first major championship.

Learning to hit a golf ball by feel also changes the way Bubba plays the game. He has been called an artist on the course because of his ability to shape golf balls left and right. In fact, Watson says he never hits a straight shot, relying on his ability to visualize a ball curving to the green rather than calculating precise distances and producing repetitive shots. Watson doesn’t just curve the ball with every swing, he curves the ball a lot with every swing. It isn’t uncommon to see Bubba hit 30-yard draws or fades off of tees and onto greens, even if there is nothing in the way. This creativity is what allowed him to hit the miraculous recovery shot that helped him win his first green jacket.

Watching Watson play the game of golf is a joy and brings up an interesting debate on whether more junior golfers should learn the game on their own, rather than go through rigorous training and swing coaching from a young age, which is the norm.

Contrast Watson’s playing style with Tiger Woods, who is known for heavily relying on swing instructors and is constantly tinkering with his game and examining it on video. Yes, Woods’ record is probably an argument for the use of swing coaches, but Woods is at his best when he isn’t thinking mechanically on a golf course and is thinking more creatively like Bubba Watson. Woods has been known to hit massive fades and draws to get out of trouble like Watson, and his creativity in the short game is second only to Phil Mickelson (Remember that chip on 16 in the 2005 Master’s?).

I have a theory that for most good golfers, the harder the shot is or the more difficult the circumstances, such as the need to curve a shot around a tree, the more likely the player is to hit a good shot. Why? Because these shots force players to think creatively rather than mechanically. They force the player to visualize the shot and are focused on making the ball travel to the target, rather than on the technical aspects of the swing.

Woods struggled last week because he is in the middle of his 83rd swing change and was simply stuck between thoughts from two different swing ideologies. Watching him before every swing, it looked like he had more on his mental checklist than the pilot of a 747. Thinking overly mechanically is not the way to play good golf, especially around a course that requires creativity like Augusta National. Clearly Woods has creativity, as he has proved so many times in the past, but he is so focused on the mechanical aspects of his swing right now that at times he suppresses his own talent and shot-making ability.

Watson showed the value of playing the game of golf by feel yesterday. You could see him visualize and picture every shot. He wasn’t stuck on swing thoughts or mechanical checklists — his creativity was on display and he knew how to get the ball to do exactly what he wanted it to.

The best way to develop feel is to simply learn the game on your own like Bubba Watson did. It makes sense — when you hit thousands of shots, moving the ball both ways, you create muscle memory for each shot, so your body knows exactly how to get the ball to move the way you want it. Too many mechanical thoughts can ruin a golf swing and lead to struggles on the course.

Swing coaches are not likely to go away anytime soon, but I think it would be beneficial for junior golfers to learn the game — at least at first — on their own to develop a feel and knowledge for their game.

With so many video tools available today it can become easy to be wrapped up in constantly nit-picking a golf swing to the point where mechanical thoughts rule and creativity dies. But as Bubba Watson proved yesterday at Augusta, creativity is crucial to good golf.

Alex Urban Alex Urban Alex Urban is a NGJ Voices Contributor and Public Relations Master's student at the University of Georgia. He graduated from Clemson University in 2011 and was the editor of Clemson's school paper's (The Tiger News) opinions section. He is interested in a wide range of topics from international relations to sports and pop culture.

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