Loran Smith: Bubba Watson resonates with fans like few golfers can

ATLANTA —

Officials on the PGA Tour will tell you that Tiger Woods continues to draw the biggest galleries at each tour stop, but Masters champion Bubba Watson has developed an enlarged following in the second half of the season.

No doubt, Bubba’s having won the Masters in April is a contributing factor to his popularity on the PGA Tour, but there are many reasons for the increase in numbers in his galleries.

First, his name alone gives him a good old boy image that is very attractive, very much like that of John Daly. While Daly doesn’t have an endearing nickname, the galleries could relate to his chain-smoking and beer-guzzling style. They came to see Big John power a golf ball into distant locations on the course. Like speed in car racing, driving distances in golf have inherent appeal to fans of the sport.

This week at the Tour Championship at East Lake, where Bubba finished at 5-under par, five strokes behind winner Brad Snedeker, there were cries of “Bubba” throughout the week.

Fans come to see him hit balls that fly deep into the outer reaches of the driving range. They swoon to his tee shots rising up and into the distance until they look like specks in the wild blue yonder. Currently, Bubba is leading the PGA Tour in driving distance at 315.5 yards, which is better by five yards than two of the best-known players on tour: Dustin Johnson at 310.2 and Rory McIlroy at 310.1.

There is more to appreciate about Bubba’s game for the fans who come out to see him play. Bubba has a tantalizing short game. They are hoping that if his ball comes to rest in the timber and rough of the right side of the fairway that they might see him bend another nine-iron shot like a boomerang onto the green, just like he did in the playoff in April to win the Masters.

“There is no doubt. Bubba is one of the most popular players on the tour with golf fans,” rules official, Mark Russell said following Sunday’s final round at East Lake. “He is self-taught. I have heard that he has never had a lesson in his life. Golf fans can really relate to a player like that. Bubba resonates with the man in the street.”

Since the Masters, Bubba didn’t exactly go underground, but he missed the cut at the Memorial and the U.S. Open at Olympic in San Francisco. Some began to wonder if something was wrong, but with the adoption of his son, Caleb, and the demands for appearances and marketing opportunities that come with winning a major like the Masters, Bubba was overwhelmed.

In all other events, he has finished in the top 25: T18 at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans; T23 at the British Open at Royal Lytham in July; T19 at the Bridgestone Invitational; and T11 at the PGA Championship. He had a very good chance to win the Travelers Championship but missed a 15-footer to tie for the lead and move into a playoff.

With the $304,000 he won Sunday for a tie for fifth place with Webb Simpson, Bubba has won more than $4.5 million dollars this year and could be a $5 million dollar man by the end of the fall, depending on his playing schedule.

Brandt Snedeker, who has a second home at St. Simons Island, was a favorite of the galleries on Sunday. They like the tousled-haird, sanguine and quick-playing Vanderbilt graduate, who is a ringer for the late movie star Red Buttons.

Few golfers have ever had a greater pay day than Snedeker, who pocked $11,440,000 for his play this week.