Five years after hitting possibly one of the greatest shots in golf’s history, Bubba Watson stared into his bathroom mirror and stopped recognizing the man looking back at him. No matter how much he would eat, his body refused to retain weight and he’d lost almost 15kg without any explanation. He looked in horror at the way his ribs now jutted out and the shadows that ran beneath them like sinister valleys. His tall frame, so famous for its unnatural coil and spring, a golf swing nigh on impossible to replicate, suddenly looked so lanky and fragile. The longer he held his gaze, the more the knot that seemed to have taken up permanent residence in his stomach started to tighten. The acid curdled in his esophagus, the heat burnt across his chest, and the fear raced through his mind uncontrollably; the same words that had kept him up for nights on end. “I can’t breathe, I’m scared, I’m going to die.”
Watson began to think about his father and hero, Gerry, a former Green Beret who’d fought in the Vietnam War. Three days before Gerry passed away, Watson bathed him and saw how the man he knew as a giant, with a piece of shrapnel from a grenade still lodged in his back just centimeters from his kidney, had been reduced to barely 42kg. “I just kept seeing my dad in the reflection,” he says. “I’m looking like my dad. Do I have something wrong with me? Do I have cancer? I fell to my knees. I thought, if I’m only going to be here for a few more minutes, I need to tell my wife how much I love her, the same with my kids. I didn’t see a way out.”
It can be hard to imagine how, as Watson puts it, “chasing your dreams led to the lowest point in my life”. He is a two-time Masters champion and remains one of golf’s most ubiquitous players at 43, despite not winning a regular PGA Tour event in almost four years. He is brash with a bright pink driver, genuinely emotional, awkwardly comedic and often divisive due to that blend of quirks. Nevertheless, he was an enigma few expected would sink into such turmoil, especially without his fellow players or the public even realising. “People kept telling me I looked good when I was losing weight,” he says. “You try and dance around it, to use golf as a coping mechanism, but eventually you reach a breaking point.”
The first time Watson experienced a panic attack was in 2007. He’d just got back home from a tournament and hurriedly woke up his wife, Angie, in the middle of the night. “I thought I was having a heart attack. I said I needed to go to the hospital.” Watson had been managing a wrist injury and it turned out that he’d had an adverse reaction to the anti-inflammatories he’d been prescribed. His acid reflux began to wreak havoc again and “those are the same nerve endings as your heart. When I get a pain in that area, I get nervous.”
At first, Watson presumed it was the medicine that had spiked his anxiety. His career continued to flourish and he won his maiden PGA Tour event in the summer of 2010, crying as he embraced Angie on the 18th green. He dedicated the win to Gerry before the words began to escape him during the prize-giving ceremony. “I couldn’t breathe,” he explained later. “My dad’s battling cancer so it’s emotional. [He] taught me everything I know. It’s not very much, but it’s all I know.”
But in early 2011, just weeks after winning for the second time, Watson abruptly withdrew from a tournament in Los Angeles after being rushed to the hospital following his first round. A short statement blamed a muscular problem in his stomach but in actuality, he was again in the emergency room reckoning with his own mortality. The grievance of his father’s death a few months earlier and the stress of his and Angie’s attempts to adopt their first child had become a load too great to bear. Add to that the attention and dedication required to maintain his newfound status as one of golf’s biggest stars and Watson had been hurt towards that breaking point again. “That wasn’t a medicine problem,” he says. “That was life. The bloodwork showed I was healthy but my mind was playing tricks on me.”
Everything became magnified when Watson produced one of the signature moments in Masters legend. It was absurd in itself that he was even in contention on Sunday. The week before, after the heartbreak of one potential adoption falling through at the last hour, the Watsons had finally been able to welcome their first son, Caleb, into the family. “I was so focused on all the other great stuff in life that I didn’t have time to think about the negatives or pressure of golf,” he says. “That made it a lot easier because you don’t get as mad or angry in your mind after a three-putt. Winning never came into my head until I made four birdies in a row on the back nine.”
Watson finished in a tie for the lead with Louis Oosthuizen. The outrageous shot he hit out of the pine straw during their play-off, hooking a pitching wedge 40 yards with such spin that the ball corkscrewed violently back on itself upon landing on the tenth green, was immediately written into folklore. The decade that separates it from the present has done nothing to dampen the myth. “In my mind, [after I saw the lie], there was never a negative thought,” he says. “Not even half a per hundred chance of negativity. Obviously during the swing so many things can happen but I felt great and the rest is history, I somehow pulled it off.”
It is something of a paradox that, in what was the defining moment of his career, the anxiety sighed away entirely. Watson was almost numb to the immense pressure of that shot, regardless of how it would fulfill the dreams he’d held since his father first handed him a cut-down 9-iron. Victory should have been cathartic, a high that would bring respite to the angst that never laid too far from the surface. Instead, in the months afterwards, his success and anxiety seemed to intertwine and bring many of those feelings back to the fore.
Watson is a regular fixture at the Champions’ Dinner at Augusta now, even if his choice of menu, consisting of Caesar salad, chicken breast with corn and mashed potatoes and confetti cake, was derided by Sir Nick Faldo as a “Happy Meal”. It was a throwaway joke, but not altogether harmless. Ever since he’d won The Masters, Watson had begun wrestling with a form of imposter syndrome. “I felt the shame, I felt I didn’t deserve it,” he says. “I hid the Green Jacket in my closet, I didn’t let people see it.” He feared he was going to be a “one-hit wonder” or felt embarrassed that he didn’t fit the mold of what he thought a Masters champion was supposed to be. “The way I grew up, where I come from, it was a tough one to understand,” he says, before reeling off a list of some of the tournament’s most celebrated winners. “Bubba Watson is not in their same category.”
The pressure had transformed into a search for validation, to prove he was worthy of sitting alongside such champions and trade stories without feeling somehow inadequate. Everywhere Watson went, people would refer to his victory, that one in a million shot, while a more consistent drop-off in his performances the following season only exaggerated his perception of undeserving. Even after he won The Masters for a second time in 2014, although “it really hit home that I was good enough… or at least a two-hit wonder”, it only exacerbated the need for fulfillment. “I put more pressure on myself, wanting to make the Olympic team, the Ryder Cup team, win a third major, watching all the numbers, rankings, FedEx Cup points,” he says. “It keeps building right, it’s gradual. And social media starts picking up and I see that people dislike me, I read the comments and take the negative but not the positive. It all starts to add up.”
In 2015, when players were asked in an anonymous poll “whom they wouldn’t help in a fistfight”, Watson was the clear winner. It was hardly a surprise, owing to frequent on-course outbursts, but the truth felt plainer when put into permanent ink. The fun-loving maverick image Watson often portrayed became more diverged from the sensitive, and perhaps even insecure, version of himself that lay beneath. “When I was in that dark hole, I didn’t see myself as a two-time Masters champion,” he says. “You only see the negative. You lose perspective.”
It was around that time that Watson slowly began losing weight. It was gradual at first, almost imperceptible, but over the course of two-and-a-half years, the severity of his anxiety became impossible to conceal any longer. In 2016, he was rushed to hospital for a third time believing he was having a heart attack. He felt frail, trapped in a cycle of thinking about life and death, almost as if one was blurring into the other. The dark hole had stolen all but a chink of light and Watson finally surrendered the pride that had stopped him from asking for help.
Watson spoke to several doctors, who slowly helped him to grapple with the reality of his anxiety. They convinced him that the frenetic thoughts that ruled his mind, aggravated by his ADHD, could at least be suppressed, if not entirely controlled. It was a deliberate and enduring process, interrupted by ends of fear and doubt, but eventually Watson’s days were less driven by disquiet, the nights became more peaceful, and after withering down to as low as 73kg, the weight started to return. “I feel very blessed and lucky that it was fixable,” he says. “I was just thankful to be alive. I went to rock bottom and I came out of it.”
After bulking up over the winter of 2017, he entered the new PGA Tour season with a rejuvenated mindset and won three events in the space of just five months. “Then you start putting the pressure back on yourself,” he says with a wry smile, not because it’s a vicious cycle but because he’s managed to escape his clutches, or even on his bad days loosen its grip. His form has inevitably wavered since but his mood is far more steady. His two children are growing up and golf is less an identity and more a job. “It’s perspective on life, sport,” he says. “You see how much people care. It’s about taking a snapshot of those moments when the kids giggle or my wife makes us all dinner, having those moments together. I’m getting older.”
Part of that realization has included parting ways with his longtime caddy, Ted Scott, after 15 years. “We split up because he can go help another young Bubba, who won multiple times because of Teddy,” he says. Since then, Scott has taken up Scottie Scheffler’s bag. The 25-year-old has won three of the last five PGA Tour events, propelling himself to No 1 in the world rankings. For Watson, it’s a source of pride rather than regret. As much as he wants to compete, he’s learned to put his health before winning, then, maybe, one will in fact lead to the other.
It’s not the sort of path Watson ever imagined unfolding after he burnt himself forever into golf’s imagination ten years ago, but then he’d never truly foreseen that either. He wielded an inordinate number of unorthodox shots like a sword but never expected to need a shield. He rose to the top of the world against all expectations only for those heights to reveal an opponent of far greater proportion. Watson returns to Augusta next week with the rare distinction of being a two-time Masters champion but the hardest battle, he says, has simply been learning “to be Bubba again”.