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Big drives may net golfer a big win

SANDY — Don't ask Bubba Watson how he hits the golf ball so darn far. He really can't tell you.

Watson hits the ball farther than anyone else on the planet, at least anyone who competes in tournaments for a living, and he's here in Utah this week playing in the Envirocare Utah Classic at Willow Creek Country Club.

The annual tournament, featuring the best players in the world not on the PGA Tour, begins this morning and runs through Sunday afternoon. The total purse is $475,000 with the winner earning $85,000.

The tourney features 156 players, most of whom are regulars on the Nationwide Tour. But there are a dozen players with strong ties to Utah also playing this week, including a couple of former PGA Tour regulars.

Picking a winner is a crap shoot, but if you're going to start with anyone, it might as well be Watson, a 27-year-old from Florida who has never taken a golf lesson in his life.

The left-handed Watson ranks No. 10 on the money list and averages an astonishing 336.4 yards off the tee, which is a whopping 21 yards farther than the second-longest driver on the Nationwide Tour, Steven Bowditch. It's also longer than any player has ever averaged on the PGA Tour, and is 17.9 yards farther than the PGA Tour's top driver, Scott Hend, at 318.5.

Tiger Woods? He averages a mere 315.4 yards.

Watson got his nickname, Bubba, because his father thought he was a chubby baby. But he's anything but chubby now, at 6-foot-3, 190 pounds. Weight and strength have nothing to do with hitting the ball long, according to Watson.

"There is no key, no secret behind it," he said. "You just have to be lucky."

Lucky? Watson was only half-kidding, insisting hitting long drives is more of a God-given ability than anything and that "you can't teach someone to hit it long."

Watson believes taller players like himself have an advantage because of a longer arc in their swing. Otherwise he's clueless.

"I don't lift weights or anything," he said. "My whole life I've hit it longer than other golfers."

Watson was shown the basics of golf by his father, who could barely break 100, and picked up the game on his own. He says he's never had a lesson in his life and doesn't plan to start anytime soon. Why mess with a good thing?

His longest drive in competition was a 422-yard smack on a par-5 last year. He averaged 323 yards driving last year, which ranked second on the Nationwide Tour, just ahead of Brett Wetterich, who won last year's Utah Classic and has since graduated to the big tour. He hasn't competed in long-drive competitions before but says he's been invited to compete in the world long drive championships in Mesquite, Nev., this fall.

Watson is playing in his third tournament at Willow Creek, finishing fourth last year and 14th the year before, and he likes the changes to the course. He says that the changes take the driver out of the hands of the players more, but he doesn't think it will hurt him.

"Whoever is putting well will win," he said. "That's what it comes down to every week."

Other top players to watch this week include leading money-winner Troy Matteson and two-time winner Chris Couch, who is No. 3 on the money list. Matteson has been the most consistent player on the Tour this year, making the cut in 19 of 20 tournaments with 10 top-10 finishes.

Other notables in the tournament include St. George native Jay Don Blake, who won the Utah Open at Willow Creek in 1988 and is an 18-year veteran of the PGA Tour; and Rick Fehr, a former BYU golfer who was also a longtime regular and a winner on the PGA Tour. Also, former Utah Open champion and PGA Tour winner Grant Waite is playing, along with another former Utah Open champion, Todd Demsey, and former U.S. Amateur champion and former PGA Tour winner David Gossett.

Among the local players competing this week are Sandy's Steve Schneiter, St. George's Nick McKinlay, Salt Lake's Kury Reynolds, Ogden's Jimmy Blair, Sandy's Luke Swilor, Logan's Brett Wayment, Bountiful's Scott Hailes and Sandy's Todd Tanner.

Golf fans can get into the tournament free by donating four cans of food to help victims of Hurricane Katrina.