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Qualifier wins place on map

THE BALTIMORE SUN

First, there's the name. On his birth certificate and his driver's license, it's listed as Gerry Watson, but nobody has ever called him anything but Bubba.

"A lot of my schoolteachers didn't know my name is Gerry," said Bubba Watson.

Then there's the hometown. It draws a murmur or a snicker or even a wisecrack, especially now. But Bagdad - not Baghdad - is the hamlet on the Florida panhandle where Watson has lived for most of his 25 years.

Whenever he is introduced on the first tee of a golf tournament, as will happen tomorrow when Watson makes his U.S. Open debut at Shinnecock Hills in Southampton, N.Y., incredulity is sure to follow.

Ladies and gentlemen, meet Bubba Watson from Bagdad, Fla.

"I think some people think it's colorful," Watson said. "Or redneck."

Though the name and upbringing seem straight out of the movie Tin Cup, Watson is not simply a left-handed Roy McAvoy. Self-taught and self-assured, Watson is hoping to be the latest unknown to make a major breakthrough at a major championship.

If Ben Curtis could take home the Claret Jug from his first trip to the British Open last summer at Royal St. George's, if Shaun Micheel could hoist the Wanamaker Trophy after winning last summer's PGA Championship at Oak Hill, why can't Watson win in Long Island?

Truth is, just getting this far is by far the biggest accomplishment of Watson's career.

"It's a dream come true," Watson said last week, after being one of five players to make it through sectional qualifying at Woodmont Country Club in Rockville and one of only 35 nationally to go through two rounds. "It's the U.S. Open. Nothing more you can ask for."

Ever since he was a little boy in Bagdad, a town of about 600 near Pensacola, Watson has wanted to be a professional golfer. His first hero was Russ Cochran, a left-hander on the PGA Tour who Watson, then 9, watched play in a tournament during a trip to Orlando for a national drive-pitch-and-putt contest.

"I've learned every shot by myself," said Watson, who, with his earnings from the Nationwide Tour and some regional mini-tours, recently purchased a home on one of the courses he played growing up. "When kids were playing with toys, I was dreaming up shots."

Watson learned to swing much the way that reigning Masters champion and fellow left-hander Phil Mickelson did - by mimicking his right-handed father as if looking in a mirror. The only difference was Mickelson's father was a fairly accomplished player and Watson's was a weekend hacker.

"He could barely break 100," Watson said.

Watson was playing in tournaments with older kids by the time he was 8 and winning his share of them as a teenager on the Gulf Coast Scratch Tour. After two years at a community college, Watson found his way to the University of Georgia.

Bulldogs coach Chris Haack recalled when Watson first showed up in Athens.

"I knew him from junior golf and when he first got up to the school, he never obviously had worked out and I told him we were going to do yoga," Haack said. "He just kind of had this really perplexed look on his face and he looked at me and said, 'Hey, Coach, I'm not religious.' "

Watson had an interesting junior year. While becoming an All-American, Watson once had his white golf shoes painted Georgia red before the team played in the Southeastern Conference tournament. He painted his putter head in a 1960s psychedelic pattern.

With his personality and penchant for creativity, Watson reminded his coach of a young John Daly. He could hit the ball a mile, but also had a surgeon's touch around the greens.

"Bubba could hit it high, he could hit it low, he could fade it, he could hook it, he could slice it," Haack recalled. "There was never a shot where creativity wasn't part of what he was going to think about doing."

The most memorable shot Watson hit came at the end of his junior year.

"The one shot that stands out to me was one at the NCAAs where he didn't take his time and he went to tap in a putt and he whiffed it and we ended missing the cut by a shot," Haack said.

Watson's senior year didn't turn out the way he wanted. After failing to qualify for the first tournament of the year, Watson was replaced by freshman hotshot Ryan Hibble, who along with four others became All-Americans and led the Bulldogs to a No. 1 ranking.

It left Watson bitter about his time with the Bulldogs.

"I don't even like to tell anyone I went to Georgia," Watson said. "But I think it helped me. I think it made me stronger."

Watson did find two important pieces of his life in Athens: his future wife, Angie Ball, a basketball star for Georgia who went on to play professionally with the WNBA's Charlotte Sting. They'll be married Dec. 18.

Through her, Watson rediscovered religion. Like one of his golfing heroes, the late Payne Stewart, Watson wears a bracelet extolling the virtues of his strong faith.

"I think it helps put everything in perspective," Watson said.

It has given him patience to know that careers in professional golf are built slowly. After finishing 63rd on the Nationwide Tour last year with $79,854, Watson took a step back in status and now leads the smaller Tight Lies tour with $43,617, having won once and finished in the top four three other times.

The only non-PGA Tour player to come out of the Woodmont sectional, Watson has big dreams going to his first major championship. If he plays as well at Shinnecock, he might do what players such as Curtis and Micheel did last summer.

That's if he can figure out how to breathe.

"My expectations?" he said. "Don't embarrass myself. I just hope I don't get to thinking about things too much."

But the reminder of his humble roots will be there on the first tee tomorrow, when the starter offers these words, "From Bagdad, Fla. ... Bubba Watson."

Roy McAvoy, eat your heart out.

Open at a glance

What: U.S. Open

Where: Shinnecock Hills Country Club, Southampton, N.Y.

When: Tomorrow to Sunday

Course: 6,996 yards, par 70

Purse: $6.25 million, with $1,125,000 to winner

TV: ESPN (tomorrow-Friday, 10 a.m.-3 p.m. and 5 p.m.-7 p.m.) and Ch. 11 (tomorrow-Friday, 3 p.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday, 12:30 p.m.-7 p.m.)

2003 winner: Jim Furyk

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