Georgia golf coach Chris Haack has a hard time convincing people that the only major winner the Bulldogs have ever produced wasn’t good enough to play his senior season.
“People are always amazed when I tell them this story and say, ‘Gosh, you didn’t play Bubba?’” Haack said. “The only time in NCAA history that a team had five guys make third team All-American or higher was that 2001 team. That’s how good that team was. Bubba was sitting there as your sixth guy.”
Watson competed in only one tournament his senior year: the Chris Schenkel Invitational, where he was the defending champion. The rest of the season, he sat at home while veterans Erik Compton, Nick Cassini, Bryant Odom and David Miller joined freshman Ryan Hybl in winning seven tournaments, some by 20 or more shots.
“The reality was Bubba could have been in that lineup and one of the other guys sitting out,” Haack said. “I was six strong. That’s how good that team was. I don’t think there’s any doubt one of the reasons they were so good is they had to work at it because you had a guy the quality of Bubba Watson sitting at home and could get in that lineup on any day. We didn’t win the NCAAs that year, so it might have been the biggest bonehead mistake on my part. But one of those guys was going to be left at home.”
Sitting was not something that sat well with Watson. He would often beat his teammates in practice, but the usual qualifying meritocracy that Haack is noted for wasn’t strictly implemented that season.
“Don’t know the reason why. Always speculation,” Watson said. “I don’t know what was going through his mind. I just know I was hurt because I was ranked preseason All-American and didn’t get to play. But it made me stronger and better and helped us grow in life. Every problem at the time seems the worst problem in the world, but it really wasn’t that big of a deal.”
It was Haack who brought Watson to Georgia in the first place. The coach first noticed Watson’s immense talent when he was working for the American Junior Golf Association. It was hard to miss the young Watson with his flashy knickers and robust game.
“He was always somebody who kind of stood out,” said Haack, who captained against Watson’s team in a Canon Cup event. “I was well aware of his talents and what he could do and the way he could move the ball. I knew how good he could be.”
Watson arrived in Athens – where his father attended his first school as a child – in 2000 ready to make his mark. His mother had been a Mississippi State Bulldog, so Watson already loved the mascot and Georgia’s red-and-black uniforms.
That first season, Watson won his only collegiate tournament – the Schenkel – as the Bulldogs went on to win the Southeastern Conference. He was named second team All-SEC and honorable mention All-American.
At the NCAA tournament, the Bulldogs were eliminated from the cut-down to the final 15 in a playoff by Wake Forest. Stories have circulated that Haack had mandated none of his players go for a certain par-5 green in two and that Watson disobeyed. Whether that led to what happened the next season, the principal characters aren’t saying.
“There’s no doubt in all the years I saw a lot of these kids come up through the ranks – whether it was Scott Verplank or Tiger (Woods) or Phil (Mickelson) – Bubba Watson had the ability to move the ball and curve the ball left, right, high and low better than anybody I ever saw,” Haack said. “His biggest learning curve was that he never saw a shot he didn’t think he could hit. As you go up levels, he’d see that island green with a 3-wood and he could knock it on there. But three out of 10 times it was probably going to go in the water and cost him the tournament. That’s a lot of kids, but with Bubba the shots were even more extreme. Those were the type of things that held him back even a little bit here.”
Haack said he had no idea about Watson’s lingering bitterness regarding the situation until he read about it years later after Watson started making a name for himself on the PGA Tour. It was Haack who reached out to clear the air.