Bubba Watson opens up about mental health struggles
10 Min Read
Bubba Watson opens up about mental health struggles
Written by Ben Everill @BEverillGolfbet
Editor's Note: This article was originally published February 16th, 2021.
“Why fit in when you were born to stand out?” – Dr Seuss
Bubba Watson stood on the first tee at Torrey Pines last month doing socially distant interviews about Linksoul, the lifestyle clothing brand. He had just become a major investor, and now he shuffled back and forth and spoke quickly, and with limited eye contact.
Then his energy lifted to almost comic proportions, words spilling from his mouth with fervor as – even if only briefly – he looked you in the eye with vitality.
To the casual observer, the shifting, twitchy Watson could have come off as dismissive or even arrogant. His excitement could have been just PR spin. Both assumptions would have been wrong. Being misunderstood has plagued Watson his entire life, and this scene provided clues as to why. His exhibited behavior was not new for the three-time Genesis Invitational winner – in fact it was textbook for someone with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) and/or anxiety issues. Watson has both. To try to understand Watson is to try to understand both conditions.
“In the past there were times I've slipped up and people have blasted me… people have made fun of me,” says Watson, who will play in a threesome with Dustin Johnson and defending champion Adam Scott at Riviera Country Club on Thursday and Friday. “And it definitely is hurtful. The big thing for me now is I’m accepting it more. One of the many problems was I held things in for so long that it hurt me. It hurt when people would write things about me without knowing me.
“Now I’m at a point where I can say let's just talk about it,” he continues. “I don’t need to hide that I’m a man who sometimes cries. I’m a man with issues just like everybody else. There's ups and downs to life, no matter if you're a TOUR golfer or a person that nobody ever sees.
“It’s OK to not be OK sometimes.”
Mental health has often taken a back seat in life, but those who suffer from anxiety disorders can tell you it’s always front-of-mind. Watson suffers from social and generalized anxiety – he has trouble in large crowds and feels self-conscious and judged in social settings. The condition has proven especially challenging for an elite athlete who performs in front of the world.
Remember when Watson won the 2012 Masters by hooking a wedge shot out of the trees at the 10th hole? As he ventured outside the gallery ropes his main stressor was not how he would win the playoff but his close proximity to the patrons. The shot – which seemingly hooked at a right angle to the green, setting up his eventual victory – didn’t bother him. Self-taught, highly visual, and unusually adept at working the ball both ways, Watson was used to making such magic.
Anxiety has been a part of his life for some time, but roughly two years ago it started getting worse. He couldn’t sleep, lost weight and even feared for his life. Sometimes he thought of his former Green Beret father, who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder before dying of cancer in 2010. A few times Watson thought he was having a heart attack and was hospitalized.
All along he was also letting the negative opinions of others seep into his soul, and his game suffered. Although he won three times in 2018, it is perhaps no surprise that he hasn’t won since.
“I thought I was going to die, and my mental issues had a good hold on me for a while,” Watson says. “I went down to 162 pounds” – he is 6 feet, 3 inches tall – “and then I quit checking my weight because it was also stressing me out. But I fought out of it and came back from it.”
These days Watson says he is also more accepting of the good he’s done in his life. He knows he’s trying to be a good father and husband and is keenly focused on charitable undertakings. His deal with Linksoul is as much to do with continued growth as a person as it is with his bottom line. Watson expects to personally evolve from it in ways he might not even be able to predict.
“Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” – Unknown.
Thousands of critics, be they viewers, keyboard warriors (this correspondent included) or even his peers, have fallen into the trap of passing judgment on Watson without the full story. We’ve judged the 12-time PGA TOUR winner not just on his ability to curve the ball in all manner of self-taught and head scratching ways (genius), but also by some isolated behaviors.
“Absolutely he's misunderstood as any person that's on TV for brief moments can be,” says his caddie Ted Scott. “Sometimes the world demands perfection and that's not something that exists. I don't want to tell somebody what they should or should not think about Bubba Watson.
“But I’d suggest,” he continues, “trying to get to know him. Look at his character off the course before making snap judgments. With minimal digging you’ll see that he's a man of faith. He's adopted two kids. He's happily married. He's very involved in charity. The man has a massive heart.”
Fellow Scottsdale resident Aaron Baddeley insists Watson is one of the TOUR’s nice guys.
“At the 2011 Presidents Cup I hit a bad tee shot that caused us to lose the last hole to halve our match,” Baddeley says. “I was pretty gutted. The first guy who came up to me with kind words was Bubba from the opposite team. Not many people would do that. Sometimes people don't see his true self or just don't want to see it. For whatever reason they've made their mind up ahead of time. But I know he’s someone I can always trust because his heart is always in the right place.”
Despite the lavish praise from friends, Watson is the first to admit he hasn’t always exhibited his best self in public. He doesn’t look to offer up excuses, but the fact is he has some.
While some would claim ADHD isn’t a real medical condition and those who have it are just lazy attention seekers who need to try harder, in reality ADHD can manifest differently in individuals. Firstly, it’s not about a want for attention at all. It is a disorder that brings heightened levels of hyperactive or impulsive behaviors and makes focus on single tasks difficult.
Yet it is important to note that ADHD does not mean an inability to focus completely. Quite the opposite, those with the condition often exhibit hyper focus in areas where their passions lie. Swimmer Michael Phelps and musician Adam Levine are part of the hyper-focused ADHD crew. It has been said that golf – in which players can intermittently let their attention wander and then laser in on a shot when necessary – is in fact the perfect ADHD sport.
This would explain why Watson is great at his sport, and also why his list of investments, plus his varied off-course endeavors, read very different to many TOUR pros. Watson has put his money behind a candy shop, a car dealership, a driving range, a minor league baseball team and now Linksoul – all places where he finds joy. He knows that if he invests outside his passions, even if they may be prudent investments, he won’t make the connections that help him grow.
Linksoul brands itself as a lifestyle rather than an apparel company, and while its roots are in golf it doesn’t follow the traditional golf-attire rout. Instead, it embraces itself as a philosophy. Co-founded by John Ashworth, the company has distanced itself from corporate rigidity and operates under the assumption that if one enjoys their life, they’ll in turn enjoy their work.
“I just love what their spirit is and what they're trying to create,” Watson says of the partnership. “I feel what their energy is, and the fact it is a mesh between the business world and the play world speaks to me and the phase of life I’m moving into now.
“I want to continue to learn about business,” he adds, “and people will see that I'm actually intelligent and understand business and how things work and how things can go forward.”
“I haven’t failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Edison.
Watson doesn’t mention intelligence by accident. He knows there are people who think he lacks it, and he admits he may have deliberately, and unwittingly at times, fueled those misperceptions. It was the easier role to play. Even his infamous Golf Boys character fit that bill.
“I portrayed a story for a while,” he says. “When I first came out on TOUR, I was hard-headed and it takes me a while to learn things, to see things in certain ways, to act in certain ways. I wasn't prepared for it. Intelligent might not be the right word, but I hope people see that I'm actually smarter than I portray sometimes. I want the world to see that I actually am smart, and the things I try to do have thought behind them and are about connecting with my passions.
“I try to do things in a way I find fun and engaging – it might be different to what people see as normal but I’m finding out it speaks to others who might sit outside the traditional golf bubble.”
It certainly does. Watson has always used social media, and these days TikTok is falling in love with his antics. At the Waste Management Phoenix Open two weeks ago, during a practice round, Watson hit a bunker shot at the famed 16th hole before being joined by influencers Joey Reed and Tosha to do their viral dance to the song “Wrap Me In Plastic.”
Traditional golf fans weren’t all that impressed, but the video has over 1.5 million views and is crossing over well beyond “the traditional golf bubble.”
“To be nobody but yourself in a world that’s doing its best to make you somebody else is to fight the hardest battle you are ever going to fight. Never stop fighting,” – E.E. Cummings
Watson is putting his new personal growth to the test by trying to ignore the haters and take the road Cummings described. He is buoyed by the progress of society, which increasingly doesn’t see “different” as such a bad word.
He says he’s up for the fight on the course, too, as he looks to make the TOUR Championship for the first time since 2018. He sits 76th in the FedExCup heading to Los Angeles’ storied Riviera Country Club, one of his happy places after winning there in 2012, 2014 and 2018.
With two Masters titles among his 12 TOUR wins, he has given some thought to the World Golf Hall of Fame. He needn’t worry – he is almost certainly heading for St. Augustine at some point. Watson also hopes his evolution as a person can also help him open the door to another goal.
“I'd really like to be considered as a Presidents Cup and or Ryder Cup captain and I’m prepared to do whatever it takes to be in that space,” he says.
He certainly knows the terrain, having played on two winning Presidents Cup teams (2011, 2015). On the four occasions he played in the Ryder Cup (2010, 2012, 2014 and 2018) the U.S. was defeated by Europe. In 2016, he acted as an assistant to captain Davis Love III as the U.S. won at Hazeltine. Watson calls it “the most fun and the most thrilling moment” he’s had in golf.
Steve Stricker will captain the U.S. Ryder Cup team later this year at Whistling Straits, with Love III recently announced as the 2022 Presidents Cup captain. Watson sent a congratulatory text that also included a reminder of his skills as an assistant should he not make the team.
Golfer, candy man, car salesman, captain, voluntary assistant captain, Linksoul ambassador.
Why fit in when you were born to stand out? Why, indeed.