Hunting For (a Golden) Bear With Bubba Watson


“Nobody has pointed out,” William Shawn of The New Yorker wrote in early December of 1943, after Berlin had been turned largely to rubble by Allied bombers, “that the destruction of Berlin established the fact that it is now possible to destroy a city and that every city, but for the hairline distinction between the potential and actual, is afire.” If Berlin could burn, then so could New York (and, though the delivery system was different than Shawn might have imagined, it did). Shawn could have been a sports psychologist—he already knew one of the key techniques of modern golf shrinks, one advocated by Jack Nicklaus himself. But such is the state of golf instruction that not even Nicklaus can command unanimity: judging by certain remarks he made a couple of weeks ago while leading at Doral after the Saturday round, Bubba Watson disagrees.

Watson, a man who can’t be as unsophisticated as his name or his speech appears, said after Saturday that despite leading the golf tournament he didn’t need a sports psychologist to help him prepare for the final round. “If anybody says they are not nervous going into Sunday … they are just lying to you,” Watson said. “Their sports psychologist is telling them to lie to themselves.” The sentence, bad grammar and all, is apparently a reference to the common psychological technique of “visualization,” or in other words, of imagining that a given event has already happened: that a crucial putt has fallen, or that the player has already won.

The technique is best known, in golf anyway, because its champion has been the man who is (as of this writing) the best player ever, Jack Nicklaus. “I never hit a shot, not even in practice,” Nicklaus once said, “without having a very sharp, in-focus picture of it in my head.” He elaborated: “First, I see the ball where I want it to finish … Then … I see the ball going there: its path, trajectory and shape … the next scene shows me making the kind of swing that will turn the previous images into reality.” It’s an odd thing: Nicklaus is not only telling us he sees things that aren’t there, but that he actively tried to see them, before they happened.

Watson’s comment draws attention to just how odd this is. It is odd to see things that aren’t there, and it’s even odder to hear someone who was once at the top of their profession confessing to it—indeed, ascribing their professional success not to an ability to suppress what he sees (but isn’t there), but actively cultivating those visions as a source of that success. This is deeply strange, not least because while he was playing Nicklaus was widely thought of as the stereotypical golfing automaton.

In Jack Nicklaus: Golf’s Greatest Champion, Mark Shaw notes that a Bruce Ogilvie, “a professor of psychology at San Jose State University,” once conducted a study for Golf Digest expressly about why people disliked Nicklaus early in his career. “The most common complaint” of Ogilvie’s report? That “Nicklaus was considered to be a mechanical man, one who ‘played like a robot.’” Even if Nicklaus’ actual experience of his golf was as a flight of the imagination, the audience experienced it quite differently.

Similarly, Bubba Watson—like Arnold Palmer—is one of those players that golf writers like to say has “imagination,” by which they seem to mean “occasionally the ball curves, instead of going directly toward the target.” Bubba, we’re told, “doesn’t like to hit the ball straight,” because it “bores him.” Or as another blogger wrote: “it is Watson’s imagination and ability to shape his shots that we golf fans find the most captivating.” Or as a third notes: Bubba’s “personality is like his golf game: creative.” But it seems clear that even if the golf world experiences his golf one way, Bubba himself experiences it differently.

It’s the “mechanical man” who’s belaboring the “power of the imagination,” while it’s the “creative” shotmaker who’s putting on the cranky Samuel Johnson act—and that isn’t the only oddity about this exchange. Watson, for instance, is a Southerner: a region characterized, said Mark Twain long ago, by its “love for dreams and phantoms.” Twain wasn’t being complimentary; he went on to call it “the jejune romanticism of an absurd past,” and said that without it “the South would be fully a generation further advanced than it is.” So for a Southerner to reject the power of the imagination is distinctive and strange: much as it would be, for instance, for a Northerner to reject what Twain calls “practical, common-sense, progressive ideas.” To compare Nicklaus and (Bubba) Watson is, thusly, like conceiving of a world in which Ulysses Grant fought for Jeff Davis, and it was Robert E. Lee who led Mr. Lincoln’s army.

Maybe that’s just a hairline distinction these days.


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