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For players like Watson, ADD a frenetic mix of impediment, edge

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist
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Bubba Watson dealt with every challenge in front of him on a tense Masters Sunday. (Getty Images)  
Bubba Watson dealt with every challenge in front of him on a tense Masters Sunday. (Getty Images)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- The exact thrust of the breakfast-table conversation doesn't really matter, but it was so comically disjointed that it prompted a laugh. It went something like this.

Young kid sits down before school and says something to the effect of, "Dad, I really like my new Pokemon cards, thanks for the pancakes, and when are we going fishing again?"

Wowser.

This is called living with attention deficit disorder, and it's that way each morning before my 7-year-old takes his daily meds. Sometimes, it's like watching a dog react when a squirrel walks past. It's not so much that his train of thought can get interrupted, but completely derailed.

Trying to track a conversation with somebody afflicted with ADD can be akin to when you're putting your clubs in the trunk and a Titleist falls out, then begins bouncing around the asphalt parking lot. Each time you reach for it, the ball caroms off in a different direction.

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Which, speaking of being all over the map, brings us to the case of the most electric, eclectic player in the game at the moment, Masters winner Bubba Watson, a player who believes that he has ADD, although he has never had it clinically diagnosed or treated.

As his sainted wife, Angie, once said to him, "Oh, you've got it, all right."

There isn't much doubt, really. Sometimes, when he's talking in his trademark animated fashion, it seems as though every synapse in Watson's brain is firing simultaneously, as his eyes scan a room like the Terminator, dancing to some syncopated beat only he can hear.

Whatever clinician conjured up the misleadingly named affliction ought to be defrocked. Two-time U.S. Open winner Lee Janzen once cracked that it ought to be called ASS, and not just because the acronym is catchier. As he put it, that's short for "Attention-Surplus Syndrome -- because you don't suffer from a deficit, you actually have too much of it."

Having a brain with ADD is like turning on the AM radio and hitting the scan button, including the stations in Spanish. Patients have been famously portrayed as "hunters in a farmer's world." Concentration is a chore and the mundane a bore, which makes Watson's ascent to world No. 4 all the more interesting.

Estimates put the number of Americans children suffering from ADD or sister malady attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, as high as 5 to 6 percent, although in a video-game, texting and Twitter age, attention spans among kids have never seemed shorter. Research indicates that it is heritable, more prevalent among white kids, and two or three times more likely to occur among boys.

Clearly, then, Watson isn't the first PGA Tour player who has battled ADD, and in fact, isn't the first to win a major while dealing with the affliction, either.

The late Payne Stewart, diagnosed a few months before his death in 1999, was a three-time major champion who won two U.S. Opens -- a recipe that seemingly sounds more dangerous than bungee-jumping with nitro in your pockets. Stewart also finished second in two other Opens, and seemingly was at his absolute best in torturous events that required absolute concentration, unerring strategy and no mental lapses.

Which brings us to a double-edged, titanium sword of ADD as it relates to golfers. It can be a help and a hindrance, if not occasionally both.

"It seemed like the harder the shot or the harder the course, the better he was able to focus," Stewart's widow, Tracey, told me in 2005. "The easier the shot, those were the ones he tended to mess up. He got bored with the easier shots at times."

Sound like any recent Masters winner you know?

As the world saw where Watson had hit his tee shot on the second extra hole on Sunday night, his trainer, Andrew Fischer, looked at the narrow canyon of trees, the pine straw and the impossibility of the 40-yard swerve that Watson needed to summon and said to fellow PGA Tour player Ben Crane, "I'm so glad he's got this really bad 'hook' shot."

Watson can hook it like Kareem and slice it like D'Artagnan. Often, as evidenced by the defining shot of the 2012 Masters, the more engaged he is in the shot, the more spectacular the result. It's a textbook example of what clinicians call an ADD patient's ability to hyper-focus for short periods, one reason Stewart was so deadly at the majors.

Hank Kuehne is one of the rare PGA Tour players who has openly discussed his ADD battles and says it can have its advantages. The tons of stimuli he sees don't have to be hurtful.

"My ADD helps me a lot at times," he said a few years back. "I can hit it into trouble and figure a way out a lot faster. Having my mind go a thousand miles an hour, things come a lot quicker."

Dr. Gio Valiante, a professor at Rollins College who has worked as a sports psychologist for a multitude of PGA Tour players, including Matt Kuchar, practically laughed when asked whether ADD is definitively a handicap to players at the top tier.

"Ín golf, you want to dumb it down and play caveman golf -- see ball, hit ball," said Valiante, who teaches a class in educational psychology and believes that ADD is over-diagnosed. "When do guys always get into trouble? When they overthink. I've never had a client call me because the game was too simple.

"I am actively trying to teach my clients what those guys with ADD do naturally."

Though, on the other hand, the sheer overload of stimuli can sometimes cause the player with ADD to miss the main message.

Watson has never used a swing coach, but instructing those with ADD can require a special touch. Hank Haney taught Kuehne back in the day.

"It is a challenge, but it is up to the teacher to adapt to the student, not the other way around," Haney said Wednesday. "I think of it as an advantage in some ways. You only have to be able to concentrate for less than a minute at a time to hit shots. It isn't all bad when your mind is free."

Coaches who have worked with other tour players said they have tried to paint instructional pictures for their clients with ADD symptoms, another area where Watson clearly excels. The veteran left-hander doesn't so much play courses in a purely tactical sense, but as much from an aesthetic standpoint, visualizing tracer-bullet outlines on holes before he hits tee shots.

Maybe it's the left-brain, right-brain thing, maybe it's vestiges of his perceived ADD, or perhaps a bit of both. With early Masters rounds taking as long as 5:45 to complete, being able to switch off your noggin -- especially when under major-championship pressure -- is never a bad thing.

Being skittish and easily distracted hasn't always worked for Watson, mind you. For whatever reason, he's struggled mightily in his career when holding at least a share of the 54-hole lead, winning only once in his five tries. Only a month ago, he blew the 54-hole lead at the Cadillac Championship at Doral. Then again, he might have blown those titles because he just flat didn't play well.

The frequently antsy Stewart didn't take his meds when he was playing because he didn't like the side effects, which he felt made him even more fidgety.

"He tried it for a while, but he didn't like it because it made him jumpy," Tracey Stewart recalled in '05. "I think it was his added maturity that helped him handle it later in life."

In a true medical curiosity, ADD patients are prescribed controlled stimulants to combat the symptoms of distractedness. Yeah, the cure sounds as confusing and contrary as what the patients themselves often experience between the ears. But it often works.

Sometimes too well.

Give Watson credit for dealing with his apparent issue himself. Another group of athletes, major league baseball players, were so enamored of the beneficial effects of ADD and ADHD meds, the league had to ban them three years ago because the use among players had skyrocketed beyond reasonable explanation.

Actually, Valiante believes golf and baseball are uniquely suited to those with ADD/ADHD symptoms because of the lengthy periods of inactivity. That's vs., say, auto racing, where disengaging for the blink of an eye could prove fatal.

As those with ADD and ADHD grow older, the brain and body often learn to deal with the symptoms naturally, which seemed to be the case with Stewart. Watson, 33, despite displaying many of the outward signs, certainly seems to have survived just fine.

"It's only considered a deficit in the classroom," Valiante said. "Man, don't we have a term for this everywhere else? It's called multi-tasking, and it's considered an asset.

"I don't think Bubba would perceive it to be a weakness, or he wouldn't have won the Masters."

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