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BOB HOPE CLASSIC

Bubba Watson wears his heart on his golf sleeve

The long-hitting left-hander is coming off his best year on Tour, but one in which his father died of cancer.

January 18, 2011|By Diane Pucin

Bubba Watson is the second-highest ranked player in the field for the Bob Hope Classic, which begins Wednesday in La Quinta.

And there could be tears.

Watson, 32, tied for second at this tournament a year ago to kick off a season that was marked by professional accomplishments — winning his first PGA Tour event and playing for the U.S. in the Ryder Cup — and personal tragedy.

All season long, Watson communicated via Twitter the emotional struggles he was facing as his father, Gerry, battled lung cancer. Gerry passed away last fall but not before keeping track of Bubba during the Ryder Cup.

"He was in the hospital, he was getting fluids, so for me to be across [the ocean] talking to him at midnight every day was hard," Watson said Tuesday.

Watson's play during that international competition wasn't impeccable.

"He said I sucked," Watson said. "I didn't play very good … normal dad stuff.

"I didn't play as well as I wanted to over there, but my dad was proud of me."

Watson did play well the rest of the year. In June he won his first PGA Tour event at the Travelers Championship and in August almost won the PGA Championship, which would have been his first major title, losing to Germany's Martin Kaymer in a playoff.

It was in that loss at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin that Watson's personality was showcased.

His last hole of golf at that major might have been a bit of a disaster — he drove into the rough, then hit into water and finally hit the flagstick on a bogey try that would have extended the playoff — but his postgame emotions were weepy and joyful.

What Watson cared most about in the moment was whether he had qualified for the Ryder Cup.

He had.

"Hopefully you all don't think I'm a sissy," Watson said at the time. "You know, I do hit the ball a long way."

He wasn't exaggerating. In 2010, Watson ranked second on the Tour in driving distance, averaging 309.8 yards.

Through it all, Watson said knowing his father was fatally ill was no burden. It was strengthening.

"It helped me," Watson said, "because my dad wanted me to play golf. He was asking me to play golf."

Watson said that early last season he wasn't so public about his father's illness. That changed as the disease progressed. Watson decided that by letting his fans know about his father's cancer, his father might gain some extra prayers.

"It was just the way to get other people out there to pray for me and my family and help go through the process," Watson said.

The Hope Classic is played at four courses around La Quinta, and this year features defending champion Bill Haas and Matt Kuchar and 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink, along with a celebrity field.

Watson, who shot a career-low round of 62 at this event, is a crowd favorite because he shares his emotions.

"I'm not afraid to laugh or cry out there," Watson said. He is married to a former University of Georgia basketball player, Angie, who is 6 feet 4 and is playing in the pro-am this week. And if anyone chooses to critique Angie's golf swing this week, Watson said he is not to blame.

"I let one of my friends that I know, great man, Bill Grove in Scottsdale, he looked at her, joked with her and said, 'Look, you don't need my help. Look how good this swing is. It's all in your head.' "

Watson said Angie had shot 70 twice before the lesson and then shot 90 after the lesson. "She's going to be mad I just told you that," he said.

Watson led this event after the second and fourth rounds last year. On the final hole, a par-five, in a four-way tie, Watson almost chipped in for an eagle. But it was not to be. Instead of his first PGA Tour victory, Watson was runner-up for the fourth time in his career while Haas walked away with the trophy.

Watson's first victory came a couple months later when the left-hander beat Scott Verplank and Corey Pavin in a playoff at TPC River Highlands in Connecticut after starting the final round six strokes behind the leaders.

That victory was dedicated to Gerry and celebrated on Twitter. There might have been some tears too.

diane.pucin@latimes.com

twitter.com/mepucin

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