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May 11, 2013

Loran Smith: Watson gives the tour needed common touch

The best field in golf is gathered here this weekend, chasing the biggest check in the sport — $1.71 million to the winner late this afternoon. And everything about The Players Championship brings high marks.

The weather is usually good in May, although much hotter than those sweater and hand warmer days when the tournament was played in March for many years. The crowds seem certain to set records when it comes to attendance, and moving up and down Route A1A to get to the tournament is about as snail-like as the Santa Monica Freeway in Los Angeles. The Pete Dye-designed golf course is lined with spectators on every hole. The high temperatures have brought out the halter tops and sun dresses, which compete with the birdies and low scoring for attention.

You see a lot of rounds in the 60s in this event when the weather is highlighted by warm temperatures and light breezes, which is what was experienced during the first two rounds. And to think that a week ago, after a deluge of precipitation, there were many areas of this golf course under water.

Of all the things that seem so incredible about golf and this tournament is that within three years, its champion likely will take home $2 million. It wasn’t all that long ago, 1963 in fact, that the PGA Tour played the entire season for that amount of money. You don’t have to win a lot to make a lot in professional golf today. The player who just makes the 125 exempt list these days takes home nearly three-quarters of a million dollars.

Bubba Watson, who has not won since earning the green jacket at last year’s Masters, has made the cut seven times in nine events this year and has banked $889,080. He still draws big galleries whose objective is seeing him power the golf ball down the fairway or make inventive stokes when he is in trouble.

The man in the street identifies with Watson. They see him as a player who always plays with heart and nerve. He captured the hearts of fans everywhere when he cried unabashedly after winning the Masters. People relate to those expressions of humility.

The most reliable critics when it comes to sport are fellow competitors, and the PGA Tour players say among themselves that nobody has more game than this former University of Georgia player.

“He can drive the ball with the best, he has a good iron game and short game,” said Mark Russell, a PGA Tour rules official who is out here most every week of the year. “Not a bad putter, either. He has all the shots and he should win a lot of tournaments in his career.”

Watson got Tiger Woods’ attention early on.  First of all, he asked for an opportunity to be a dew sweeper with Tiger, who has gotten up at dawn over the years, practicing when there was nobody to bother him. He had the course to himself. Bubba wanted to play with the best player in the world and learned from that experience. Tiger once said that Bubba was the “future face of the PGA Tour.”

Bubba’s failure to get into the winners circle following his win at Augusta a year ago probably had to do with the giving of priority to the adoption of his son, Caleb, and from all the demands on his time which resulted from winning that first green jacket. Everybody, from David Letterman to the guy with a new piece of golf equipment to the representative of clothing manufacturers, was reaching out to him.

Hard to play your best with all those attractions, but obviously there is enough talent there to bring him back to the winner’s circle.

Not this week — but there is a lot of golf to be played on the PGA Tour this season, including three majors.

Loran Smith is a contributing columnist for The Daily Citizen. You can write to him at loransmith@ sports.uga.edu.

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