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Top U.S. golfer? Not-so-straight answer might be Bagdad Bubba

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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DORAL, Fla. -- Mirror, mirror on the wall.

When Bubba Watson looks at himself, it doesn't take much careful reflection before he offers the response to an increasingly valid question. Of course, blurting out words at a machine-gun pace is a normal, waking reaction for the animated, fidgety Watson.

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Given the state of affairs at the top of golf's world rankings, and the disappointing results of his starry and established countrymen, the ball-pulverizing lefty is almost certainly the best American player on the planet at the moment.

Stop laughing. It's a defensible, sensible posit to pose.

"It's not me, for sure," Watson said.

Oh, really? This much is a certainty -- while Watson has charged 87 spots up the world ranking in the past 14 months to No. 15, the Yanks as a troop have been in full retreat. Ergo, under the last, best-man standing principle, Bee-Dub bests Tee-Dub and the others.

Tiger Woods hasn't won in 1½ years, Phil Mickelson has seriously contended once on Sunday since last summer, and Jim Furyk has been invisible since winning the FedEx Cup last fall. Steve Stricker went to Qatar to play a few weeks ago, and it's like he never came back. Outside of Matt Kuchar, who has one victory and more top-10 finishes than any player since the beginning of 2010, nobody else is in the debate.

With many of his countrymen going south, Bubba Watson has risen steadily to No. 15 in the world. (Getty Images)  
With many of his countrymen going south, Bubba Watson has risen steadily to No. 15 in the world. (Getty Images)  
In fact, it shouldn't be an argument at all. As ridiculous as this notion might have seemed at this time last summer, Watson has become an occasionally twitchy, shot-carving savant who has morphed, rather incredibly, into a world heavyweight. If not, with the rankings under siege from Europe, the No. 1 player in the Colonies.

"Not me," Watson said. "I just happened to win twice in less than a year and that was it."

It's twice in the past eight months, actually, which makes him seem like a habitual offender compared to the fading American contingent.

Over that short span, the before-and-after picture with Watson is jaw-dropping. He had never won on any major tour before he claimed the Travelers Championship last June. Two months later, he lost to world No. 1 Martin Kaymer in a playoff at the PGA Championship and qualified for the Ryder Cup team. His play down the stretch in his victory at Torrey Pines five weeks ago was revealing in many regards.

Watson, so animated on the course that David Feherty called him "jumpy as a box of frogs," was as indomitable and determined as Woods once was when in contention. The many meltdowns of Sundays past, not to mention the collisions of balls with trees, were gone. Watson looked like a Green Beret, which is exactly what his late father, Gerry, was.

His father figures into the amazing Watson transformation. After a long battle with cancer, Gerry Watson died last fall. Earlier, Watson's wife, Angie, had a medical scare of her own.

"It's given him perspective," said Aaron Baddeley, one of Watson's best friends on tour. "A bogey's a bogey and it's not that big a deal. He's always been really good. It was a matter of getting out of the way of himself."

Keeping the bigger picture in mind can be tough in the insular world of golf, where the money and individual pressures are unique. For instance, Watson wears a $500,000 designer watch. Reality and humility become rather vague terms.

"We all need that and it's easy out here to lose track of it," said Baddeley, who waited behind the 18th green at Torrey to congratulate his friend after the victory. "You think it's all about the golf and it's not. It never was and never will be."

Admittedly, Watson had lost the plot.

Last summer, after Watson had washed out in a qualifier for the U.S. Open, staged the day after the Memorial Tournament in Columbus, Ohio, he and longtime caddie Ted Scott had a long discussion in a restaurant. Scott threatened to quit if Watson didn't fix his angry, agitated demeanor on the course. Angie joined in by phone.

It became an outright intervention that got Watson's attention.

"[Scott] looked at me and said, 'Look, we have to figure this out because I'm not happy, you're not happy,'" Watson recalled. "Not amongst each other but with what's going on. Our team is not doing the right thing, for some reason. You're just angry, and so we just sat down and he told me how it was.

"I was either going to take it or leave it and I said, 'No, I want to do better, I want to you help me.' I called my wife and said that we need to figure this out. We need to figure out how to get better."

Watson basically stopped living and dying with every shot. It was a laughable mindset to have, he now realizes, when people are actually living and dying in real life.

"My dad passed away and I realized that life is too short," he said two weeks ago in Arizona. "What I believe in my life as a Christian, life is too short, golf means absolutely nothing.

"You know, if I win this week, it would be awesome, it would be great, that's what I want to do. But in the whole scheme of things, it means absolutely nothing. If I make a bogey on the first hole and lose the next nine holes and lose my match, it means nothing. It means next week I'm going to try harder.

"So I realized that my life, it revolves around golf, but it's not my life. My tombstone is not going to say how many wins or losses I had. It's going to hopefully say I'm a good person and everybody misses me. But don't tell nobody that, though."

That's typical Watson, bouncing around between serious and comical, the same guy who weeps after wins. He has a raging case of attention-deficit disorder, which has never been clinically diagnosed, but it surely contributes to a persona that occasionally rubs people the wrong way.

He can be aloof. He talks about himself in the third person. He's talks trash with players one moment, then espouses humility the next. He's as nerve-jangling as a quart of cappuccino at times, then steely as an assassin when closing out the win at Torrey.

And we haven't even begun to discuss this style of play. Watson dials up shots that nobody else can hit, from banana balls with his driver from the fairway at Kapalua to 280-yard 3-iron shots at the Accenture Match Play Championship, where he finished fourth two weeks ago.

Pick your favorite horse as to which American is atop the ladder at the moment, but nobody is more entertaining than Watson, who produces as many power curves, sliders and cutters as MLB's entire spring-training pitching staff, combined. When he's on his game, like over most of the past 10 months or so, it's an electrifying sight to behold.

When he's not, the highs and lows have been minimized.

"Outside the ropes, as soon as I sign the scorecard, I'm the same Bubba from Bagdad," he said of his tiny hometown in the Florida Panhandle. "I love to have fun, love to goof around. I don't worry about what I shot.

"So I've worked hard to try to bring it to the golf course and my caddie has kicked me in the butt a few times to remind me of what I'm supposed to be doing. Golf is the last thing I'm thinking about, we're just thinking about keeping my life in the right direction."

Interesting, that dual direction is pointing straight up the rankings.

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