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Shane Ryan | June 16, 2015

How Bubba Watson's temper, religion, and exquisite game made him the most divisive player in golf

In his new book Slaying The Tiger, author Shane Ryan spends a year on the PGA Tour examining the shift to a new, ascendant generation in golf. This excerpt explores the incomparable Bubba Watson, a unique talent whose behavior has made him one of the most controversial superstars in the game.

“I just have to rejoice. That’s what this whole year is about, trying to rejoice…I can think of a quote from the Bible. I think it’s Philippians 4:11 that says, ‘I’m not in need. I’m content with my circumstances.’ ”—Bubba Watson, January 30, 2014, after an opening round 64 at the Phoenix Open

Anti-Bubba sentiment has been around as long as Bubba Watson himself, but until 2014, it had largely simmered below the surface. There are very few outlaws in golf, and the players enjoy certain protections from the media, especially on the television side. Fans take their cue from the broadcasts, and have followed suit in fabricating saints from the raw material of mere athletes. It takes a lot to lose this security blanket—to stand exposed before a press that typically goes out of its way to accommodate.

To truly understand Bubba’s trajectory over the years, we have to jump to late 2014 and the PGA Championship. That’s where it happened—the moment when the tide finally turned, and a friendly press turned hostile.

During Tuesday’s practice round, the PGA of America decided to resurrect the long-drive contest that had been a tournament staple back in the fifties and sixties. The organizers set up a digital scoreboard on the par-5 10th tee, and from the start, the contest was a huge success with players and fans. Padraig Harrington took a running start into his swing, Happy Gilmore style. Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley, and Rickie Fowler, playing together, hammed it up with the crowd. Rory McIlroy hadn’t even planned to play number 10, but came over after his front nine to hit a drive for the fans … and when it went out of bounds, he hit another for the hell of it. All in all, it was a harmless exhibition, and a bit of fun for anyone with a practice round ticket and the fortitude to endure Kentucky’s stultifying late-summer humidity.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

You might have thought Bubba would enjoy the spectacle more than most. He can hit the ball a mile—he’s led the Tour in driving distance several times—and he famously encouraged fans at the 2012 Ryder Cup in Medinah to cheer during his swing, so that he was surrounded by a delirious wall of noise as he teed off. Bubba relished the attention, and though he later claimed the stunt was meant only to “grow the game,” the ego was hard to deny.

The long-drive contest was another attempt to grow the game, but when Bubba arrived on the 10th tee, he didn’t feel so charitable.

“This is fucking ridiculous,” he muttered, cursing at the PGA staff assembled around the hole. He said that he’d be hitting a driver every other day, but not today.

After playing partner Chesson Hadley teed off, he barely had time to pick up his tee and step aside as Bubba raced up and hit a lazy 3-iron. Before the announcer even finished saying the words “Bubba Watson,” the ball was in the air and he was striding angrily down the fairway.

Later, I asked two of the kids manning the tent on the 10th tee to name their favorite player. They debated between Mickelson, Bradley, and Fowler. There was no hesitation when I asked for their least favorite.

“Bubba,” they said in unison. “He’s an asshole,” added the first.

“Not wanting to do it is one thing,” said his friend. “But be a man about it.”

Afterward, he offered no explanation except that he was trying to “learn” the course—as though asking him to hit one driver on a hole where he would almost always hit driver anyway was an unforgivable imposition on his process. He went on to insist that he didn’t care what people thought of him, and he was only concerned about how he looked in the eyes of God. (An interesting statement, considering he had removed all Internet browsers from his phone earlier that year because he couldn’t handle reading anything negative about himself.)

The story becomes even stranger when you consider that the prize for winning the event was twenty-five thousand dollars to the charity of the winner’s choice. Bubba uses charity and religion as his sword and shield; why wouldn’t he jump at the chance to win free money for the cause of his choice?

As the week went on, Bubba’s outlook did not improve. On Friday, as a light rain fell throughout the morning and his game suffered, he resorted to temper tantrums on the course. He began his round on the back nine, and by the 16th hole, he was already whining as Rory McIlroy waxed him.

David Cannon/Getty Images

“I can’t play golf, man,” he said to his caddie Ted Scott, one of the most respected bagmen in the game. “I got nothing.”

The language took a turn for the worse on the 18th, when he moaned about his poor play. “It doesn’t matter what I do, man. It doesn’t matter. It’s fucking horseshit.”

After the turn, he threw a club, then blamed it all on the weather. “Water on the clubface, bro,” he barked to Scott. “Water on the clubface. I’ve got no chance.”

He had managed to survive the fallout from the long-drive contest, but this was the final straw—the response, both from media and fans, was instantaneous. Bubba refused to come out for his post-round interview, but Golf Channel’s Jason Sobel waited him out for an hour and a half. Sobel’s reward was a handful of half hearted quotes, and he proceeded to lambaste him in that day’s column. Dave Kindred followed suit at Golf Digest, ratcheting up the sarcasm:

“He had to play with raindrops on his driver’s face. We all know that is Satan’s work, for surely the prince of darkness diverted the raindrops from all other players and caused them to settle only on Bubba’s sticks. Raindrops everywhere, all morning, beginning at 6 o’clock and falling even through Bubba’s tee time at 8:35. For hours, raindrops kept falling on Bubba’s haircut, causing, methinks, reverberations in the vast empty spaces beneath.”

The blogs were even less kind, and Twitter was blowing up with fans spouting anti-Watson rhetoric, spearheaded by two hashtags that proved devastatingly effective. The first, #YearOf Rejoicing, referenced the philosophy he had been repeating all season, a reminder to himself to be grateful for the millionaire’s life he was leading. As an instrument of blunt irony, these words worked beautifully when paired with a quote such as “water on the clubface, bro!” The second hashtag, #PrayForTedScott, referred to his caddie, and needed no further explanation.

Bubba made a token apology on Twitter later that day, and had his PR-crafted contrition act ready for the Barclays tournament two weeks later. The entire fiasco, though, left a larger question unresolved:

Who the hell is this guy?

There are two Bubbas, and they exist side by side, engaged in an endless power struggle.

The first Bubba is the good ol’ boy with a wild streak—a free- swinging maverick with a fearless approach to the game. This is the image he presents to the public, and taken at face value, it’s a welcome antidote to golf’s stuffy atmosphere. He looks like a young Randy Quaid, speaks with the choppy, self-assured cadence of George W. Bush, and swings like he’s trying to come out of his shoes. He’ll often refer to himself in the third person—“Well, if you ever heard about Bubba Watson’s career, you know that I’m in trouble a lot”—and he has one of the sport’s great shit-eating grins. Even his name—Bubba, strong and southern, folksy and historical, and loads of fun for a gallery to shout—lends him the aura of a people’s champion.

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

He relentlessly promotes his own altruism, and at times, it’s almost possible to believe it. When Ping ran a campaign to raise money for the Phoenix Children’s Hospital, Bubba made up the $110,000 shortfall at the end. He once gave thirty-five thousand dollars to his high school and choked up as he spoke to the students about his own academic troubles. He donates to adopting families, and sick kids, and earthquake victims, often bringing his sponsors on board to increase the payout. And while you might raise an eyebrow at just how public the entire process can be—he’s not the only golfer to be charitable, but he gets far more PR mileage out of it than anyone else—the fact remains that he’s giving.

Then there’s the beginning of his relationship with Angie Ball, his future wife. They spent their first date at a golf course—she didn’t know Bubba played, and you can imagine how much he enjoyed her shock when he launched his first drive. Afterward, sitting in the car, she told him that she couldn’t bear children. Bubba told her it was okay, and that he wanted to adopt.

These are the rare times when it’s possible to see his Christian beliefs in action, and it’s why his entourage will defend him so forcefully, even in the difficult moments.

“I think when Bubba Watson gets too serious about golf or life, that’s when you see a different side of him,” said Webb Simpson, a fellow Christian on Tour and one of Bubba’s biggest defenders. “Bubba’s love language is giving you a hard time, so if he’s giving you a hard time, it means he likes you.”

America saw the “good” version of Bubba in 2012, when he found himself stuck in the pine straw on the second hole of a Sunday playoff at the Masters. Blocked out by trees, he had no angle to the green, and so he invented his own—a physics-defying snap hook with a fifty-two-degree gap wedge that sailed toward the far side of the fairway before making a boomerang sweep to the right and, incredibly, settling on the green ten feet from the pin.

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Dressed all in white, his long hair trailing out the back of his visor, he emerged from the trees looking like golf ‘s true messiah. The crowd roared one word in unison—”Bubba!”—and reached out to touch him as he glided past. When Louis Oosthuizen failed to get up-and-down from the front of the green, Bubba two-putted to win the green jacket. It’s no exaggeration to call his approach one of the most memorable shots in golf history, and whatever else happens in Watson’s career, he leaves behind a memory that will last as long as people play the sport.

What’s more, it was the perfect consummation of “Bubba Golf,” a sui generis style that is both reckless and awe-inspiring. In the moments before that shot, CBS’s Nick Faldo summed up his chaotic magic when he said that Bubba was “rewriting the instructional book every time he hits a shot.”

In preaching the virtues of that approach, Bubba is his own best promoter.

“My whole game is built on me playing golf, me manufacturing something,” he said. “If you watch, sometimes you’ll see me slice my driver fifty yards to just get into play. Sometimes you’ll see me bomb away and put it in the rough to have an easier shot at the green. All I’m trying to do is score. I don’t care how I do it. There’s no pictures on scorecards.”

Bubba Golf is an explosive, edge-of-your-seat show that produces triumph and tragedy in almost equal measure. It rises from the unapologetic individuality of its practitioner, and would be impossible for anyone else to duplicate. And while it’s unfathomable that another golfer could even imagine the shot he pulled off at Augusta, much less execute it, it’s equally impossible to imagine Bubba winning his first major in any manner that could be called routine. This is a man who operates at many speeds, but “average” is not one of them.

“I’ve never had a dream go this far, so I can’t really say it’s a dream come true,” he told the TV cameras at Augusta, showing the sense of poetry and drama that would come to define his public persona. He broke down in tears as he hugged his mother and thought of his son, Caleb, the one-month-old boy he and his wife Angie had adopted two weeks earlier. At age thirty-three, he was a new father and a major champion. He looked to be armed with a new outlook, and it seemed like his career trajectory could only sail higher. He had us in the palm of his hand.

The second Bubba is the one that took this affection—you might even call it love—and systematically spoiled it.

In 2013, Bubba couldn’t find the winning touch. He managed a couple of top-tens, but failed to make the right shots at the critical moment. Coming into the Travelers Championship in late June—on the same course, River Highlands, where he won his first tournament—he was running out of time to capitalize on the momentum from the previous year. The Connecticut course suited him, though, and with just three holes to play on Sunday, he held a one-shot lead on the field.

On the tee at the 171-yard par-3 16th, he was stymied by the wind and stuck between clubs. He consulted with Ted Scott, who convinced him that he should use a 9-iron instead of the 8-iron. Bubba listened, and whether a fugitive gust of wind rose from nowhere or the club was simply wrong, the ball hit the front of the bank and rolled backward into the water.

Harry How/Getty Images

Bubba turned to Scott with a look of indignation. “Water,” he said, biting off his words. “It’s in the water. That club.” The two proceeded to the drop zone, where Bubba took a penalty and hit his third shot over the green. “You’re telling me that’s the yardage?” he asked Scott. He turned away in disgust. Moments later, when he missed his putt for double bogey, he looked back at Scott and whined, “There’s just no reason for me to show up.”

The CBS cameras caught everything, and the incident became infamous; the video had more than one million views on YouTube before it was removed. On the broadcast, David Feherty summed up the collective reaction: “Now, wait a minute … hey, you hit it, bud!”

Watson took a triple bogey on the hole, and lost the tournament. Later, when’s Brian Wacker asked him about the exchange with Scott, he blew up.

“Don’t try to make me look bad,” Bubba said. “You always do. Don’t. Don’t. We’re not talking anymore.”

The incident painted Bubba in an unflattering light, and it was not an isolated embarrassment. In 2011, he traveled to Europe to play in the French Open near Paris. He missed the cut with back-to-back rounds of 74, but it was his conduct off the course that provided the real fireworks, and led to exchanges like this one:

Q. I heard you went to Paris yesterday?
Bubba Watson: Yeah, yesterday.
Q. Did you like—what did you see?
Bubba Watson: I don’t know the names of all the things, the big tower, Eiffel Tower, an arch, whatever that—I rode around in a circle. And then what’s that—it starts with an L, Louvre, something like that. One of those.

Ignorance is one thing, but Bubba also managed to distinguish himself in France as a temperamental prima donna. He wouldn’t accept any interview requests with foreign outlets, demanded his own courtesy car when someone had the audacity to suggest he share with a European golfer, complained about the lack of ropes keeping the gallery at bay, and howled about the fans with their cameras and phones.

He was the caricature of an ugly American, and fellow pro Stuart Appleby called him out on Twitter, writing, “I’m not perfect all the time, but it is not acceptable to come to another tour and more than once show a lack of respect.”

The cherry on top of Bubba’s international diplomacy sundae came when he told reporters that he would probably never return to Europe— except for the British Open, because it was a major.

So the long-drive outburst at Valhalla was just the latest of Bubba’s greatest hits, and it wasn’t even a surprise. Earlier that week, before any of it happened, Doug Ferguson at the AP had mused that although Bubba was a 33 to 1 shot to win the tournament, he “could get much better odds on annoying someone.”

But we haven’t answered the question: Who is he?

For as much as he craves attention, Bubba Watson is loath to reveal his past. Karen Crouse of The New York Times is one of the few writers to earn unfettered access. In an excellent story called “Growing up Bubba,” she details how his father, Gerry (Bubba’s first name is also Gerry), a Green Beret who served in Vietnam, first took his son to a driving range in the panhandle town of Bagdad, Florida. The boy was six, and it was there that he began playing with a sawed-off 9-iron. Gerry was his only teacher and, according to Bubba, he’s never had a formal lesson.

Scott Michaux of the Augusta Chronicle unearthed another telling detail—Bubba’s father wanted him to play baseball, but to nobody’s surprise, Bubba was an irritable teammate who expected perfection from everybody else. He would become angry when they failed, and he once yelled at a coach whose son made four errors in a game.

Golf was a no-brainer: He could rely on, and blame, only himself. (Though, as we’ve seen, he does manage to get creative within those limitations.) His inventive hook-and-slice style developed in part because he spent his days whacking away at Wiffle balls—bending them in every direction—and in part because of the varied terrain and tight fairways of Pensacola golf courses, which demanded creative thinking.

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

On the Golf Channel’s interview show Feherty, Bubba opened up about his father’s struggles adjusting to civilian life when he returned from Vietnam. He spoke in his usual clipped style, arms crossed, leaving off pronouns and keeping the narrative tight. Even so, he couldn’t hide his emotion.

“They lived on Pensacola Beach,” he told Feherty. “It was before beach property was really a thing to have so he was the man around the beach. Went to jail a few times—we just won’t say the number—but been to jail a few times for fighting. Just not knowing how to deal with it, a lot of guys don’t know how to deal with stuff, because that’s what they were trained to do . . . when I was born my mom said ‘no more.’ . . . so he straightened up and changed and just was a hard worker and just kinda left that life.”

The more you learn about Bubba, the more you understand that Gerry was the dominant influence in his life. Even Bubba’s emergence as a flamboyant loner came straight from the old man, who wore colorful handkerchiefs to work and inspired his son’s bright clothes and equipment.

Chris Haack, the future coach at the University of Georgia, was working with the American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) when Bubba first burst onto the junior golf scene, and had a front row seat to one of the most singular players he’d ever come across. “He wore these canary yellow knickers or hot pink shorts,” Haack remembered. “He stood out—he was just kind of the guy who had attention drawn to him, and I think he also liked the attention, and wanted to be recognized.”

He never changed. In 2011, an AP story by Doug Ferguson listed the ways he sought the spotlight—how he inserted a pink shaft into his driver when he made the PGA Tour, how he always made sure people were watching when he drove on the practice range, and how he campaigned on Twitter to be on the Ellen DeGeneres show. “And then he would try to explain that he only plays golf for the love of the game, not to get any attention,” Ferguson wrote.

The article came too early to mention Bubba’s purchase of the General Lee car from The Dukes of Hazzard, or the various goofy YouTube videos he made with friends, or his 1.3 million Twitter followers, but the idea comes across—Bubba is an attention hound, right down to his driver cover, which is a miniature shirtless Bubba doll in overalls.

In Michaux’s Augusta Chronicle profile, there’s an old photo of Bubba wearing a typical childhood-era outfit: two-tone golf shoes, long white socks, red knickers made for him by his grandmother, a white-collared shirt with an American flag pattern, and a white Panama-style hat with a blue, star-spangled band.

Haack may have the best perspective on Bubba, having watched him from childhood to college. But even he can’t explain what contrary spirit sometimes takes hold of the former Bulldog. His theory hinges on the idea that despite Bubba’s attempts at presenting a cavalier face to the world, deep down he feels intense pressure. He still hasn’t fully learned to cope, and when something goes wrong, he succumbs more quickly than others to the natural inclination to blame anybody but himself.

This defensiveness seems to stem from insecurity. He was always a poor student, which was a constant source of self-doubt, as was his lower-middle-class upbringing and the contrast it presented with the wealthy kids of the junior golf world. Then, too, he must have felt like an oddball for his strange swing—a reckless creation compared to the mechanical precision he saw in others.

He compensated in different ways. When things went well, he embraced his difference and let it swell his self-image. When things went poorly, he looked for somebody else to blame.

“I would be willing to bet you that deep down he regrets he did that,” said Haack, of the long-drive contest at Valhalla. “But at that particular moment, there was something there that struck him wrong, and he was just going to do totally the opposite of what everyone wanted him to do.”

When Bubba came to Athens after a stint in junior college to improve his grades, he found a trailer where he could live cheaply near campus. He played well for Haack his junior season, won a tournament, and was voted a preseason All-American the next year. But if there’s one constant among those who remember Bubba’s childhood, it’s doubt—doubt that he could ever conquer his own attitude, doubt that he could ever thrive even on a college level.

As if fulfilling those lowered expectations, Bubba had a falling-out with Haack that may have been begun when he went for a par-5 green in two at the NCA A championships against the coach’s orders. That’s only a rumor, but Bubba sat out the next year and watched all five playing teammates, including Erik Compton, become All-Americans.

Even after winning the green jacket, his behavior remained frosty to outsiders. And to Bubba Watson, almost everyone is an outsider. That includes the other Georgia Bulldogs on Tour, five of whom won tournaments in 2014. Their relationship with Bubba is strained to the point of antipathy. When I asked Brian Harman if Bubba was connected to the other Georgia alums, he could only laugh.

“He’s not, man,” he said, shaking his head. “He’s just not. It’s unfortunate, because we all come from the same Georgia family. At one point, Bubba and Haacker had their differences, they just had a little bit of a falling-out.”

Harman held out hope for a true reconciliation, but Brendon Todd was less diplomatic. After he won the Byron Nelson in May, a reporter had asked him whether he received any congratulations from Bubba, and his response—Todd is as considerate and unpretentious a person as you’ll find on Tour—was uncharacteristically terse. “No, I’m not close with Bubba,” he said. “I don’t expect to hear from him.”

“Bubba’s never been friendly with the Georgia players, and none of us really have a good relationship with him,” he told me later. “I don’t know what the reason is. It definitely seems like he has his group out here and he sticks to that group and he doesn’t really socialize with other people.”

Todd’s early career was filled with heartbreak and doubt, and in his first season, when he struggled and eventually failed to keep his Tour card, he thought it would be helpful to have a high-profile player like Bubba, a fellow Bulldog, as a friend. He was disappointed when he tried to approach and introduce himself, though—the only response was a cold blow-off. It was the same in 2012, after Bubba won the Masters and Todd attempted to congratulate him on the range—nothing doing.

Stuart Franklin/Getty Images

Todd decided to give him another chance this year. He had just won the Byron Nelson, and he approached Bubba on the range at the Memorial in Ohio. Again, he congratulated him on his season, hoping he might get a kind word in return.

“Thanks,” said Bubba, barely looking at Todd as he walked away.

“I played with him for the first time at the Greenbrier in July for two days,” Todd told me. “He was fine to play with in the sense that we both played our games. I got the sense that he wanted to be buddies, but the feeling I had gotten from the previous five years was so much the opposite. I just couldn’t.” Todd let a small smile creep onto his face. “I was just there to do my work and listen to him complain.”

Todd may be one of the few Bulldogs who will express his disdain on the record, but it’s a feeling that’s shared, and that comes out in unprotected moments. When, after his best season ever, Georgia alum Chris Kirk failed to make the Ryder Cup as a captain’s pick, his former teammate Kevin Kisner sent a consolation tweet.

“Don’t worry @ChrisKirk,” it said. “They would probably just pair you with bubba.”

Like many of his peers, Todd believes that Bubba hides behind his Christianity without truly putting its tenets into practice. When things get tough for Bubba, retreating to the Bible has become a sort of reflex. At the PGA Championship, when he was asked whether he cared what people thought of him, he was ready with his standard defense.

“Truthfully, no. Because the way I’m trying to live my life, read the Bible, follow the Bible … no matter what I do, no matter if I win every single tournament, half the world is going to love me and half the world is going to hate me no matter what. You can’t impress everybody and you can’t make everybody happy.”

It was classic Bubba—reverting to religion, scolding anyone who questioned him, and placing himself above those with the temerity to criticize a man of God. All of which leads to a familiar question: Does he practice what he preaches?

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Later in the summer, I spoke with Stephen Bunn, vice president of the College Golf Fellowship, a group that also collaborates with the PGA Tour Fellowship to run weekly Christian Bible study sessions at each Tour stop—sessions at which Watson is a regular. In the course of a long conversation about his beliefs and his mission in golf—since 1998, Bunn has played a key role in growing the organization, to the point that they now receive over a million dollars per year in donations—I asked if the attendance at the Bible sessions had grown in the past decade. He hesitated a moment.

“People can be prohibited from coming to something because of who’s there,” he said, speaking carefully. “They’ll know that in that group there are going to be both moral guys and immoral guys, and there’s going to be guys who might have a stench of Christian body odor. I can’t think of one, I’m just saying…”

Bunn was too diplomatic to mention anyone by name, but it’s hard not to think that one of the players poisoning the well is Watson. There’s an aggression and a sense of superiority to his faith. You can see it in the way he sends Bible verses to friends, or casts them at the media like a fire-and-brimstone preacher in his pulpit. Bubba isn’t just a Christian; Bubba is special. Bubba is the best Christian.

As you might imagine, my attempts to engage him went poorly. A select few journalists are able to gain his trust with time and persistence, but I was new to the Tour and didn’t have that luxury. As much as Bubba is generally disinclined to speak with established media, he was even less eager to open up to someone he didn’t know.

Still, I had to try. After laying what I thought was a decent foundation at press conferences in the first half of the year, I made my first one-on-one approach at the Travelers Championship in late June. He had just finished his Wednesday pro-am, and I waited inside the roped-off putting green while he made his way down up the hill past the 18th hole, signing autographs for fans. He looked irritated, and when he finished he gave his playing partners a signed ball before issuing a terse goodbye. Free from the crowds, he walked toward me, and already I had the sense that my timing was poor. Unfortunately, I was committed.

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“Bubba,” I began, but the words were barely out of my mouth before he snapped.

“I can’t talk right now!”

I had seen this type of reaction before, and I would become more familiar with it as the season wore on—his face flushes, he becomes tense, and he recoils in a defensive posture, as though you’ve just insulted his mother or asked to borrow money. I had been rejected by other golfers so many times that it practically became a pastime, but this was the first time the situation felt truly hostile—like I had cornered a panicked animal. Maybe I should have walked away, but I didn’t.

“Well,” I continued, ashamed at how meek my voice sounded, “I just wanted to introduce myself.”

“You’ve done it,” he barked, moving past me. “You’ve introduced yourself.”

I had an idea, though, something I thought might appeal to his ego, and his sense of his own humble origins.

“I’m writing a book about the Tour,” I offered, “and I think the story of your childhood and where you came from hasn’t really been told.”

He flashed me a suspicious look. “You’re writing a book about my childhood?”

“No, it’s about the PGA Tour,” I tried to clarify, “but you’re a big part of that this year.”

Thinking we were now in a legitimate conversation, I took two steps toward him on the practice green.

“We’re practicing now!” he yelled, and then Ted Scott, the man he publicly humiliates once or twice a year, jumped in front of me like a secret service agent shielding the president from a pistol-toting lunatic.

“We’re practicing!” Scott echoed.

I trudged away, thoroughly beaten and humiliated.

I made my second effort two months later, at the WGC-Bridgestone, and that attempt somehow felt even more doomed. Again, I found him on a practice day, and this time I made sure he had finished his work on the putting green before I approached. Again, I got the flushed face and the frantic eyes when I brought up the idea of a short interview.

“I’m not going to do that,” he yelled, bristling once more with that surprising anger. I wondered if I had murdered a family member of his in a past life. “I’ve got offers to write my own book,” he said. “Why would I give it to you?”

I considered the logic of this, and found the argument fair— though I wished he could get past the idea that I was writing an entire book about him. I didn’t want a repeat of our last confrontation, and had by this point fulfilled my own sense of obligation—I hadn’t succumbed to cowardice and avoided him completely, as I desperately wanted to do—and so I prepared to leave. Unfortunately, we were going in the same direction.

“I’m going to do it for myself!” he barked. He must have realized he’d forgotten to mention Christianity or charity, and so he turned back for a parting shot: “And my charities!”

His agents were no more enthused about a formal interview than their superstar, so I soon gave up the fight. I had to settle for asking him questions at press conferences, which, to his credit, he always answered in interesting ways. There is an undeniable charisma to the man, and there are times when his natural energy and charm shine through. In those moments, you catch yourself liking him—at least until he screws it up again, which is never long in coming.

When I think of Bubba now, after a year in his orbit, two thoughts return. The first is that despite discovering the nuances and the complexities beneath the surface, my gut instinct remains the same—he’s a hypocrite and a prickly narcissist whose occasional flashes of humanity tend to be self-serving.

The second thought, though, is that I’m thrilled he plays professional golf, and I hope he sticks around for years. Everything he does, from the sacred to the profane, makes the entire sport more exciting. “Did you see what Bubba did?” are words I heard again and again in 2014, and each time, I knew I was in for a good story.

Everybody has a quintessential Bubba moment that they never forget, and mine came on Tuesday at the PGA Championship, after his strange performance at the long-drive competition. A few of us caught Bubba by the doorway of the press tent, and the short story he told highlights everything that matters about Bubba—the hypocrisy, the aspiration, the self-righteousness mixed with a total lack of self-awareness, and, yes, the reservoirs of generosity brimming somewhere beneath the surface.

“Last night I sent Teddy and three other guys a verse,” he told us. “James 1:22. I was doing a little study at the house . . . and it says, ‘Don’t merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.’”

From the book SLAYING THE TIGER by Shane Ryan. Copyright © 2015 by Shane Ryan. Reprinted with permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House.

About the Author

Shane Ryan has written about golf, college basketball, and baseball for various outlets, including ESPN The Magazine, Golf Digest, Deadspin, and Grantland. He also writes about music, film, and TV for Paste magazine. He grew up in Saranac Lake, New York, went to school at Duke University, and now lives in Durham, North Carolina, with his wife, Emily.