On the first tee of the first day of Ryder Cup practice this week at Medinah, the surprising intensity of the ovation touched Bubba Watson.
To touch Watson's soul, even slightly, is to reach deep inside and turn on his emotional faucet. He might be the only PGA Tour player whose caddie needs to save extra space in the bag for Kleenex.
"I wasn't expecting that big a roar, and it was an honor," Watson recalled Thursday. "I might have teared up a little bit, but nobody knows that."
Nobody who knows Watson finds it hard to believe, which makes the theatrical 33-year-old one of the most compelling golfers for Team USA supporters to follow. Thousands in a boisterous crowd again will increase Watson's heart rate, yet it's who isn't there that will test his composure most.
The last Ryder Cup marked the final time Watson's father, Gerry, saw him play golf. Gerry Watson Sr., a Green Beret who served in Vietnam, died two weeks later in October 2010 after a long battle with throat cancer.
"I want to win this and honor my dad, so there's a lot of things going on in my head that are normally not going on," said Watson, who adopted a 1-month-old boy in March with his wife, Angie. "I've got to just calm myself down and be focused on one shot at a time."
Tiger Woods never ceases to make us stare. Phil Mickelson always manages to make golf fans smile. But of all the U.S. golfers on display in Chicago, Watson is an ideal symbol for all who want to wrap themselves in the American flag rooting for Everyman, a self-taught, fun-loving, community college graduate who loves God, family and his country.
No player arrived armed with more patriotism than Watson, who will have time to gather his emotions while sitting out Friday's morning matches. Passion oozed from Watson's voice when he tried putting into words what it meant to look at his golf bag and wardrobe and see the letters U-S-A.
"It's the United States flag," Watson said. "The military that wears our flag everywhere they go, they give us freedom to play golf. I haven't been in the military yet, and unless there's a draft, I'm probably not going to be. So for me, it's the one chance I get to represent our country."
Nobody had to remind Watson of the difference in needing courage to drive the green on Medinah's newly designed, treacherous 15th hole and to defend America's interest in a foreign land. The son of a soldier knew better.
"There's no comparison because they're doing something that really means something, and we're playing golf," Watson said. "This is for the people that I've never met that keep fighting for our freedom, to represent them and hopefully hit some good shots for them."
Watson's good shots off the tee entertain galleries and threaten to make White Sox slugger Adam Dunn the second-most powerful lefty in town this weekend. Behold, Bubba Golf. A notoriously long hitter, Watson once uncorked a 422-yard drive. But Gerry Lester Watson Jr. was called Bubba long before that, the nickname his father assigned immediately after holding his new 9-pound, 3-ounce son.
For a boy who grew into a man with a larger-than-life persona, it always seemed to fit.
"I'm just this goofy left-handed kid named Bubba,'' Watson said.
Watson can be loud, as he and U.S. teammate Jeff Overton were at the last Ryder Cup — much to the chagrin of the Europeans — trying to "pump people up."
He can be funny, as he is in various YouTube videos that include Watson smashing a pineapple off the tee and hitting trick shots from his porch into a hot tub.
He can be charitable, raising $300 for breast cancer research for every drive over 300 yards with his pink driver and singing in a boy band with fellow PGA Tour players Ben Crane, Rickie Fowler and Hunter Mahan.
He can be equally fascinating and frustrating for friends and foes alike.
"I'm still trying to figure him out," said buddy Webb Simpson, as serious as Watson is playful. "He relaxes me, and I help him focus on golf and draw him back to what we need to be looking at. You can't win the Masters and not be a very tough competitor. His approach to the game is laid-back, and then when he has 30 seconds to hit a shot, he's serious."
Seriously, nobody promises to turn Medinah's 7,658-yard walk into a sentimental journey more than Watson.
"I'll probably cry at some point because I cry every week it seems," Watson said.
Sunday night, Watson only hopes they will be tears of joy mixed with pride.