A Phil cannot replace a Tiger. Neither can a Luke or a Lee. An imaginative name needs to be matched by something just as interesting.
Like a Bubba.
Despite Tiger Woods’ collapse the past three years, no golfer has come close to replacing him in the public imagination as golf’s top icon. Because no one else has the right stuff.
Tiger grabbed the public’s fancy in the late 90’s with the longest drive on the PGA Tour. Jack Nicklaus did the same thing 30 years before. Phil Mickelson can drive the ball a long way, but not as long as Tiger. New Master’s champ Bubba Watson, however, is by all accounts the longest driver now on tour and sails his long ball far past Tiger Woods.
Phil can be somewhat interesting. Recent U.S. Open champ Rory McElroy is a nice kid. Padraig Harrington won three majors in a couple of years. But none of them have that touch of glamour and panache needed for a reigning celebrity. Tiger debuted the collarless shirt concept that featured his finely toned muscles, and he always wears a bright red one on Sunday. These little strokes of image consciousness make a big difference.
Bubba doesn’t do little. Like his drives, Bubba sports a large dose of panache. His glowing pink driver makes Tiger’s red shirts look dull. Bubba’s physique is larger and broader than his counterpart. He wears a $500,000 white watch, designed specifically for him by famed designer Richard Mille (only 38 others were made). Bubba drives the actual car used in the Dukes of Hazzard TV show dubbed “The General Lee.” You can’t make this stuff up.
Tiger has also bedazzled the crowd for many years with his amazing trick shots down the stretch. Out of the deep rough, over a tall tree, or around the corner, he seems to have the ability to pull it off. Bubba doesn’t have a category called “trick shots.” They’re all extraordinary. He curves every shot he hits 20 to 40 yards, in either direction, mostly for the fun of it, in order to appease his overly active, ADD mind. He calls it “Bubba golf.” The 40 yard hook he hit from the deep woods underneath several trees to win the Masters? “It was a pretty easy shot,” he said. And he meant it.
Until now, no one has threatened Woods’ billion dollar industry as Mr. Golf. No one has been enough like Woods to pull it off.
Bubba surpasses Tiger in all these important qualities. But he may also leap ahead of Woods due to the ways he is unlike the reigning icon.
Tiger makes a perfect swing that has been developed by the greatest teachers in golf. Bubba has never had a lesson. The average guy can relate.
The average guy may also be yearning to return to some old-fashioned values in this age of growing moral chaos. Tiger’s swinging lifestyle, then his attempted recovery via Zen Buddhism, both have a certain avant garde appeal. But the rest of the Billy Bobs in America likely prefer Bubba’s excitement about winning on Easter. A few weeks before, he posted his priorities on Twitter: “1. God. 2. Wife. 3. Family. 4. Friends. 5. Golf.”
No one doubts that Tiger puts golf first. His steely facade down the stretch of tournaments in some ways gains admiration from the fans. But prolonged bouts of non-emotion can wear on people over time. Bubba wept like a baby after sinking his winning putt. He kept doing so during the award ceremonies. It’s definitely different, but it might be a different that the masses are ready to embrace.
The largest contrast between the two golfing greats is championships. Bubba has one. For now. Unlike the other contenders, Bubba actually has more potential than Tiger Woods. And unlike the others, he can steal the limelight from Tiger even if he only wins a few here and there like Phil or Padraig or Rory have done. Because he can capture the public’s imagination, thanks to the complete Bubba package.