AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Even though he is as talented and as fascinating to watch as any player in the history of golf, let's be blunt about it for a moment: Bubba Watson frequently makes it hard for people to like him, much less love him.
He can be petulant, disingenuous, petty and infuriating, sometimes all within the same round. When he joined the PGA Tour in 2006, you could barely believe how far he could hit the ball and how creative he was with his shot-making. He even had a fun nickname. He was an instant fan favorite. But over time, aspects of his personality bubbled up that made people -- included his fellow touring professionals -- want to strangle him.
Last year, when ESPN.com surveyed tour players and asked them to name the guy on tour they'd be least likely to help if a fight broke out in the parking lot, Watson was the runaway winner. The Twitter hashtag #PrayForTedScott gained popularity with golf fans because of the way Watson frequently berated his caddie, Ted Scott, during his rounds.
The criticism, in general, was fair. Watson even claimed he appreciated it, saying if he was acting like a jerk, he wanted people to point it out. It didn't always seem like a genuine request, but he's continued to repeat it. "I love it," Watson said. "Only way to get better is people calling me out." He says he sees it as an opportunity to improve himself as a person, as a reminder he's a work in progress. He hasn't always lived up to those aspirations, but at least he's trying. You have to respect him for trying.
With the Masters looming, maybe it's time for some of us to try in return. I'll point the finger at myself here and propose something: You don't have to love Bubba, or even like him. You certainly don't have to root for him. (He still has plenty of fans, and always will. You'll typically find them screaming "Mashed potatoes!" after every drive.)
You can, however, feel empathy for Watson.
You can try to understand how much his anxieties and insecurities seem to be at the root of his odd behavior, and you can respect that he's self-aware enough to understand that, mentally, he's a bit of a mess. He doesn't hide it well, and that's OK.
You could see some of his weirdness on display Tuesday when he showed up at Augusta National for the first time this week. He didn't come to the course on Monday with what was first reported to be a sinus infection, but when he spoke to the media after his practice round, Watson -- like a kid worried he might get in trouble for skipping school -- quickly volunteered he'd been vomiting.
"A doctor showed up at my house, and the nicest way to put it, he watched me throw up," said Watson, who revealed he spent his sick day watching the first season of "Girl Meets World" for the second time. "I have proof that I was sick. He was there. I don't know why he was watching me, but he wanted to check it out and see what was wrong."
Watson, 37, was the subject of a lengthy profile on "60 Minutes" over the weekend, and during the interview, he detailed some of his anxieties:
He's afraid of heights. He's scared buildings might fall on him. He's scared of the dark. But more than anything, he's extremely anxious in crowds or when he's approached by strangers. It's an unusual phobia for a professional golfer to have, especially one as successful as Watson, but it was a revealing window into why he acts the way he does sometimes.
During his practice round on Tuesday, Watson hit a drive near the rope line on the 8th hole. It meant he'd have to hit his next shot, a 3-wood, while standing next to a small group of fans. He walked to his ball, set his club down, asked Scott a question about the location of the pin, then blasted a shot toward the green and started walking without making eye contact with anyone. The entire sequence took 10 seconds. "Gee, Bubba, thanks for lingering," mumbled one of the fans in the gallery.
The two-time Masters champ said he opened up to "60 Minutes" about some of his complexities in part because he feels like people misunderstand him -- and his relationship with Scott.
"I think it was good to show the issues I have," Watson said. "There are issues that you have that I don't. Mine just happen to be with cameras in my face.
"If I was that mean to Teddy, I think he would have quit a long time ago. We're going on 11 years. I don't pay him that well to keep him for 11 years. I feel bad for him, because it makes him look like he's not an intelligent person. I'm not that mean to him. He's one of my best friends."
Watson might annoy some of his colleagues, as evidenced by the poll results, but he has a small group of friends on tour that insist he's a good person who usually means well. It just doesn't always come across on the course.
"Bubba is a nice guy who likes to cut up and joke, and sometimes I think he jokes in situations when people take it the wrong way," said golfer J.B. Holmes, one of Watson's friends. "He'll have a whole conversation with someone, he'll say one thing that if you didn't know him you could take it the wrong way, and that's what everybody writes down and jumps on."
Golf has always been full of idiosyncratic, stern personalities. Ben Hogan was an irascible curmudgeon who treated a lot of people -- even Arnold Palmer, whom he refused to address by name the one time they played together -- like dirt. Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods were certainly cold, if not downright rude, at the peak of their games. Maybe it's time we cut Watson a little slack. If you took away what makes Watson eccentric, what makes him unique, you might ruin the artist in him.
For most people with anxiety, stress tends to be a trigger, but Watson believes he's actually able to focus his best in stressful situations. There is evidence to support his theory, as well. Look no further than the memorable sweeping hook he hit on the 10th hole off the pine straw that helped him secure his first Masters win in 2012.
"If you ever look at my career, the tougher the situation, I've always seemed to come to the top," Watson said. "I think it's because of hyperfocus. When I'm in trouble, I'm able to hit some shots that don't seem doable. I think that's because I get so zoned in, and I can pull some of these shots off."
Watson is never going to have Jordan Spieth's or Phil Mickelson's genial personality, but that's not a bad thing. He is, as he likes to say, a work in progress. You can appreciate the work as a way of appreciating the man in full.
"I'm not going to hide anything," Watson said. "My dad told me to always tell the truth. I've got nothing to hide from anybody. My dark secrets aren't that dark. I'm not worried about other people. I've had so much bad press written about me, true or not. I'm over it. I'm not trying to impress any of the people. It took me a while to learn that, to learn what's most important in life. Hopefully, I'm getting better than that."