Bubba Watson headed in right direction
SANDWICH, England -- Bubba Watson would like to explain himself, which is good since France and large chunks of Europe nearly spat Perrier through their noses when the Ugly American last spoke on foreign soil.
In a pair of brief, image-crippling interviews during the French Open two weeks ago, Watson managed to insult an entire nation and make enemies from Paris to London. He incurred the wrath of media on two continents and even angered some of his own tour peers.
"All you can do is just say, 'I didn't handle it the right way. Hopefully y'all can forgive me. And let's move on,"' said Watson, while sitting outside the players' dining trailer Monday afternoon at Royal St. George's, site of this week's Open Championship. "Hopefully a year from now it will be water under the bridge and nobody remembers it."
"It" was calling Paris' Arc de Triomphe "The arch I drove around in a circle." "It" was calling the Palace of Versailles "The castle that we're staying next to." And "it" was dismissing the Louvre as "A building beginning with L."
This would be like someone calling the Washington Monument "that pointy thing," or Mount Rushmore as "The stone place with the dudes' faces."
As an added bonus, Watson complained about the French Open's lack of security, lack of security ropes and lack of spectator protocol (too many fans clicking cameras and cell phones). The performance prompted one London Daily Telegraph columnist to write, "Watson behaved at the French Open in the fashion of every oafish American tourist you dread to encounter in the patisseries of Old Europe."
I don't know what patisseries are, but I do know people on this side of the Atlantic still consider Watson Public Oaf No. 1. I also know that he's sorry for popping off, that he's sincere about making amends and that he still hasn't figured out how to handle fame.
So if he had a public relations mulligan?
"Knowing what I know now, well, yeah, I'd go all PC," he said. "That's just the fair answer, the true answer."
But Watson didn't go politically correct. He went geopolitically incorrect. He hooked his comments wayyyyy past the OB stakes.
"I wasn't saying I hate the fans," said Watson. "Wasn't saying I hate the golf course. I wasn't saying I hate the country. I was saying it's just different, I'm uncomfortable. Which I think is fair, to be uncomfortable with it.
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"People can look at it going, 'He's uncomfortable.' Or people can write it, 'That's a mean dude.'"
Or they can write that he's a chowderhead American who should have known better. And they did.
"After getting home last week -- I didn't know there was this negative press until I landed in the U.S. -- I had a lot of text messages and stuff," said Watson. "Those are historical landmarks we should know, but me, just being who I am, I went sightseeing and I loved it. I've got pictures of all of it. I didn't mean any negative thing towards it. It's just me being the dummy that I am -- I didn't know the names of it. And I tried to apologize for that because obviously that was the biggest nerve I struck in everything."
As Watson spoke, former Masters champion Bernhard Langer reached over a white picket fence outside the players' trailer and shook Bubba's hand.
"How you doin'?" said Watson. "You doin' good? Everything going good?"
"I had surgery on my thumb," said Langer.
"I know. Is it getting a little better?"
"Getting a little better. Hoping to play soon."
"OK, good. Praying for you, bud."
Two things: Chances are the German majors champion has never been called "Bud" before, and Watson will actually pray for Langer's speedy recovery from surgery. That's how he is. He quotes Bible verses on his Twitter account. He usually means well.
But there's no denying that Watson hasn't handled success well. After the first round of the U.S. Open last month, when he shot even-par (but bogeyed the last three holes), he wouldn't talk about his visit to the White House or the release of a popular "Golf Boys" video. He stiffed reporters at the French Open. He was becoming a bit of a jerk.
But the jerk broke down and cried on the drive from the airport to his home after landing back in the States. He told his wife Angie, "I just want to play golf. I don't understand this other stuff."
The criticism, however much deserved, wounded Watson. He struggled with the reaction to his comments, and he still struggles with the attention he receives. Despite winning three times on tour (twice this season), Watson doesn't consider himself a star. Problem is, others do.
"I'm telling you, since I've won the third one, I'm putting more pressure on myself," he said. "It's more pressure around me, more fans around me. I'm just not comfortable yet with that popularity -- I guess that's how you'd word that. I'm not comfortable with the popularity yet. I want it because that means obviously I'm playing well. If I was missing every cut, nobody would care, nobody would come watch me. So obviously I'm on the right path, but now I've got to get the other side of my brain to be on that right path.
"Other people have a great mind, but maybe their physical game is not there. Some people have a great physical game and their mind's weak. And mine's really weak when it comes to that. I'm from a small town [Bagdad, Fla.], not used to [the attention]. As many people as I've had following me in these last few months is more than my town had total. So it's new to me."
The irony? Watson spent a month in France when Angie used to play professional basketball in Aix-En-Provence. And he loved it. He loved his last visit to Paris, too, except for the part when he opened his mouth.
This has been a painful, humbling learning process for Watson. He screwed up and he screwed up as big as his golf swing. He gets anxious when crowds close in on him, which is why he was so sensitive about the spectator control at the French. He has been all over the world, but he isn't necessarily worldly.
"I've got to be more appreciative of where I'm at," he said. "I've got to be more respectful of where I'm at. Choose my words carefully, knowing it can be hurtful to some people. And then I got to remember that it's just golf. No matter how bad I play, or how good I play, it's just golf. I've got to be more mindful and respectful to others around me."
See? He's trying.
If they'll have him, he wants to return to the French Open next year. "But now, with all this bad press, I don't know if I'm able to come back," he said. "I don't know if they'd even want me to come back. And that's sad. That's not how I wanted to leave it, that's not how I wanted to be portrayed in that country."
Watson tugged at his visor. He said he now knows each of those three famous French landmarks by heart.
"But if you asked me to spell them, I couldn't spell them," he said.
Then again, the French could spell his name, but not pronounce it. He kept hearing, Boo-ba.
"So I think we're tied," said Watson, smiling. "We're equal now."
Not yet. But slowly getting there.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at email@example.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.
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2011 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
2011 champion: Darren Clarke
Course: Royal St. George's
Where: Sandwich, England
Yardage, par: 7,211 yards, par-70
Topics: The Open Championship