Understanding Bubba

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We are inhabitants of the age of the instant opinion. Out in space, where thoughts are converted into binary code and we build a digital history, reputations are forged and destroyed in the transpiration of an instant. The polarising force of judgement casts out its villains and anoints its heroes in the turmoil of individual moments. On Sunday evening, as Bubba Watson hooked his ball into the pastel blue skies of Augusta and landed it just feet from the tenth hole, it was decided that he would be celebrated by the cybernated masses. He was to be a popular champion.

But what is it that makes an athlete a universally likeable commodity in the age of immediacy? Continually exposed to the most caustic scrutiny, many of the sportsmen who ascend to the pinnacles of their professions are frequently reviled; Tiger for the corruption of a flawless veneer, Kobe for his cold-eyed competitiveness, LeBron for his conscious self-importance, and Cristiano Ronaldo for his preening arrogance. The received wisdom dictates that nice guys don’t win, that greatness is achieved only by the most ruthless, most single-minded individuals. They become daunting cultural figures, the consumptive nature of their determination eclipsing common humanity, their imposing physicality threatening to emasculate the everyman. Their existence is barely relatable to conventional experience. The elite athlete becomes defined by otherness.

Once in a while, however, sport will beget a more conceivable champion. In the realm of the superhuman there occasionally shines the light of exceptional ordinariness. Watson—with his emotional backstory, humble demeanour and regular physique—is a natural member of the pantheon of antithetic winners. (Hell, he even has a sense of humour!) Of course, the reality is that he is just another multi-millionaire with a skill level far beyond the reach of the majority, but the perception is of something altogether more routine. Watson looks and behaves like a regular guy, not an Adonis, and through his innate regular-ness he allows us to project ourselves into the moment of his glory. He affords us the opportunity to believe that, one day, it might be us. The instant opinions of cyberspace, generated via the perception of a shared emotional trajectory, were exclusively positive.  

Watching the drama at Augusta unfold, I found myself thinking back to last year’s NBA Finals and the narrative that surrounded Dirk and the Mavericks. Facing the machine-like superstars of Miami, Dirk had been cast as the brilliant but flawed contender, the man who had gone in search of greatness once before only to return home with wounded pride. He was soft, he was awkward, and he was unconvincing, but those were the very qualities that endeared him to the neutral. When the Mavs shocked the world to win it all, Dirk’s reaction was that of genuine delirium and panicked disbelief. Without displaying the cold, aggressive sense of entitlement that often colours the public perception of superstars, Nowitzki’s triumph felt like a rare moment of genuine romance.  

The formula for sporting popularity is not an exact science, there will always be outliers to the patterns that we think we see, but our longing for recognisable purpose and inspiration compels us to identify with those athletes who aren’t afraid to reveal a corner of their soul. We are all flawed, and so we are enchanted by those who defy the robotics of elite sports, overcoming their own ordinariness to succeed at the highest level. They are the fathomable face of greatness, the individuals who exceed themselves to inhabit the fringes of their own sense of reason. As Bubba said as he tried to absorb the enormity of his achievement, “I never got this far in my dreams.”

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