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Bubba's 'arrival' creates buzz, but few likely to follow his route

by | CBSSports.com Senior Golf Columnist

Bubba Watson says his Masters title proves 'everybody has a chance,' but there's more to the story. (AP)  
Bubba Watson says his Masters title proves 'everybody has a chance,' but there's more to the story. (AP)  

ORLANDO, Fla. -- For the past 10 days or so, the hurrahs and huzzahs have been piling up around the globe.

In an outright media blitz, Bubba Watson blew through New York City like last summer's hurricane and has been splashed across the cover of nearly every sports periodical in the land, including Sports Illustrated, which showed the Masters winner's photo above a headline reading, "A New Folk Hero."

Rightly, if not leftly, so.

Watson plays the game with savoir faire unlike any player in the game, using a nervy, curvy philosophy that makes Phil Mickelson look like a tactical plinker and Tiger Woods look like he's bisecting every fairway.

"If you had to go pay money to see guys play golf, it would be Tiger, Phil and Bubba," veteran Brandt Snedeker said. "You catch yourself watching [Watson] play a little bit when you're playing with him."

He bears watching, just as this bears repeating: The 33-year-old is a blast of fresh air in an admittedly stuffy sport and seems destined to become a cultural figurehead because of his minimalist ways and maximalist results. Watson uses no head-shrinker and no clubhead-tinker -- just the quickest hands in the game and an intuitive, instinctive feel that an array of psychologists and teachers could not impart.

"I think people are going to realize everybody has a chance to do this," Watson said. "You don't need expensive golf coaches. You don't need expensive golf courses. You don't need all that. You can just learn to play in your backyard and go to the municipal courses and learn how to play."

All intoxicatingly true. But let's take a deep breath here, folks, because while that no-frills, all-thrills methodology works, it's hard to envision his victory as the game-changer some have suggested. Rest assured, we have come to praise Bubba, not to pan him. But at this point, it's a quantum leap measuring longer than a Watson wallop to assume his entertaining victory at the Masters will demonstrably affect how the game is taught or played.

Watson, who grew up in the tiny and homespun hamlet of Bagdad, Fla., is a true savant with gifts others simply cannot replicate. For instance, he has a clubhead speed of 123.68 mph, which is second on tour, and ranks first in ball speed at 183.58. Few top players hit driver more often than does Watson, whose mantra is ear-popping.

"If I've got a swing, I've got a shot," he laughed.

In other words -- go ahead and try this at home. You can't do it.

Don't bother looking for athletic or cultural parallels, either, because there are few. Outside of Tommy Gainey, Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes -- other players with self-taught swings who eschewed the tech-and-teacher-heavy path to the PGA Tour -- the homegrown players are rare, outside of a few from the international contingent.

"You know what, I don't know if everyone in here have really paid attention to Bubba Watson, but let me ask you a question," Gainey said. "Did you ever think he would win a major, with the way he plays?"

Well, yeah, actually. Watson lost in a playoff at the 2010 PGA Championship and contended at the 2007 U.S. Open. But for all the decidedly welcome Bubba hubbub, it doesn't mean he's going to attract a whole new demographic to the game or take a wrench to the player-production pipeline. In golf, change is often so gradual, it's measured with a microscope, not a rangefinder.

Watson is perhaps most closely akin, in swagger and playing style, to Arkansas masher John Daly. While Daly has often been a captivating story and has certainly attracted some new devotees, he's written a cautionary, how-not-to thesis ruining a promising career. Thankfully, Watson doesn't drink and has none of Daly's bad habits.

I momentarily digress. Let's proceed.

Woods, the biggest drawing card in the history of the sport, was expected to bring a whirlwind of demographic change to the game. Here we are, pushing two decades later, and he's still the only fully exempt guy of African-American heritage on the PGA Tour. If Woods couldn't alter the photo array, Watson has no chance.

Did Lee Trevino change the game? Outside of Vijay Singh, he's written perhaps the most riveting biography among the game's Hall of Fame contingent, but it hardly precipitated an avalanche of players from the hardscrabble side of town.

Did Se Ri Pak change the game? OK, that's an intentionally bad example. She's the most impactful player of the past century, and is credited as the impetus behind a migration of Korean and Asian players both into the sport and toward the States.

Watson's win won't be a cultural awakening, though Golf Incorporated would desperately love for him to supply any comparable lift, a la Pak. The sport will almost certainly settle for a few more fans buying tickets or tuning in for the network broadcast.

Facts are, mostly because of the cost and long hours, fewer people are playing the game in the U.S. than when Woods was at his zenith, and the number of American players has skidded precipitously in the past six years, from 30 to 26 million. Last year, 19 new courses opened while 158 closed, marking the sixth straight year that supply and demand were headed markedly in the wrong direction.

That's way too much weight to place on the square-shouldered Watson, who routinely hits the ball 305 yards in the air and stands as an ad-libbing revelation among the elite players. This is not a criticism, but those attributes do not make him a game-changer. More like a re-arranger.

Enjoy the ride, because it's likely going to be more colorful than his driver, but keep it in perspective and don't ruin the moment. For once, please don't overswing.


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