The golf world is always ready to anoint “the next one,” and Bubba Watson is that golfer now. He won the Masters with self-belief, massive drives, and a mind-bending, hooking wedge from the trees for the ages. Now planet golf is salivating over the prospect that he could take the game to new heights of popularity, and that he could win plenty of tournaments, including majors.
That’s all possible, of course, but a cautionary word or two is in order. We need look no further than a few weeks ago, when Tiger Woods won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando by five shots. Woods, who really was the next one for so many years, or the next Jack Nicklaus, if you will, was supposedly back on his game. He won. He was back. He was about to be the Tiger Woods of old.
That lasted only a brief time, until Woods was never in contention at the Masters. But, happily for all the pundits, along came Dr. Watson, he with the PhD in maneuvering the ball. Watson flew north to New York City to chat with David Letterman, Piers Morgan, and many other folks who were thrilled to get the latest, greatest, newest, most entertaining golfer.
Now Watson is in New Orleans, ready to defend the PGA Tour event he won there last year. Will he or won’t he? Will he be a master shot-shaper as at the Masters? Will he shape up to what the golf world and even those not all that interested in the game want from him, since he did it his way, and his way led to the green jacket?
Why, just the other day, a 10-year-old at the Palm Beach Polo club was banging balls around and he was doing it naturally. The great Canadian amateur Marlene Streit was in the vicinity and watched the kid swing away, having a great time. His swing was a lovely thing to behold. He walked into a sand trap and hit some balls out of there with such ease you’d have thought he must have had lessons.
But he hadn’t, and he was proud of it. “Bubba never had a lesson,” he told Streit. So maybe Bubba golf will indeed encourage kids and others to have some fun with the game rather than taking it so seriously that it becomes a funereal affair.
At the same time, it’s a lot to hang on one golfer. There was supposed to be an explosion in golf interest after Woods came on the pro scene in late 1996 and started winning everything. It never happened. Golf participation has been going down, down, down. The supposed Tiger boom was a bust. Still, at least he truly dominated the game, a la Nicklaus before him.
Oh yes, Nicklaus. Here’s a list of golfers touted to be “the next Nicklaus,” and the list could be longer: Ben Crenshaw and Bobby Clampett come to mind. Phil Mickelson comes to mind. Crenshaw won two Masters and Mickelson has won five majors, but neither was the next one. Clampett got lost in the maze of swing confusion and now, years later, is starting to show some form on the Champions Tour.
More recently, the list of golfers who could really, really be something would include Sergio Garcia, Martin Kaymer, Dustin Johnson, and, in particular, the 2011 U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and now Watson. What does he think about all the media talk? Is he feeling any pressure to be the next one?
“When it comes to media putting pressure, no, golfers put enough pressure on ourselves,” Watson said in New Orleans. “The media don't really - - if you're nervous, you're nervous. It doesn't matter what the media said about you. The media is going to say bad stuff anyway because negative sells.”
It’s not “bad stuff” to say that golf history is replete with the belief that “the next one” has arrived, and the fact that this rarely comes to pass. McIlroy has said he just wants to be himself. Ditto for Bubba.
There’s nothing wrong with that. The truth is that we’re the dreamers, frothing at the mouth with the fantasy that “the next one” is here.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at email@example.com . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein