By Marla Ridenour
Beacon Journal sports columnist
There's nothing like an appearance on Shaq Vs to make you feel like you've arrived on the PGA Tour.
And there's nothing like hitting golf balls with Shaquille O'Neal and Charles Barkley to make you realize your own athletic gifts.
''It showed how good I am compared to them,'' Bubba Watson said with a laugh.
That was one of the perks for Watson after the first victory of his career at the Travelers Championship in June. He found himself in California, filming an episode for the second season of O'Neal's reality show on ABC.
That brush with stardom might be just the beginning for Watson, who shot a 6-under-par 64 on Thursday in his first appearance in the Bridgestone Invitational. Two strokes behind at Firestone Country Club were Masters champion Phil Mickelson, U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell, Kenny Perry and Adam Scott.
Rejuvenated by a two-week vacation that included an emotional visit with his cancer-stricken father at Watson's lake house in High Point, N.C., Watson might have needed the levity Shaq provided.
''He's tall,'' Watson said, sounding like a 5-year-old after scoring an autograph from his NBA hero.
Although Watson wouldn't reveal the show's outcome, he didn't speak glowingly of teaming with Barkley against Anthony Kim, hitting balls for the first time since thumb surgery, and O'Neal, a beginner. Noted swing instructor Hank Haney had already failed to correct a flaw in Barkley's swing on a Golf Channel series, so Watson said Barkley had been playing left-handed for 10 days.
''Charles Barkley is not very good at golf,'' Watson said of his friend, who lives near Watson's winter home in Scottsdale, Ariz.
Shaq, on the other hand, was impressive.
''Shaq is an athlete, he just happens to be 7-foot-2, 300
pounds of pure muscle,'' Watson said. ''He wasn't bad. The feel on the greens wasn't very good, but for the five holes we played, he impressed me.''
Watson, a 32-year-old lefty, didn't need to cavort with NBA legends to realize his special lot in life. While he was shooting the show, his father Gerry was at home in Bagdad, Fla., battling throat cancer. Gerry, 64, a Vietnam veteran who was a member of the Green Berets' Special Forces, was diagnosed in November after being plagued by rheumatoid arthritis for 20 years.
His father's health crisis was one of the reasons Watson broke down and cried after winning a three-man sudden-death playoff at the Travelers.
''I'm a very emotional guy. I cry all the time,'' Watson said that day in Hartford, Conn. ''When I go to church on Sundays, I'm crying at church. I couldn't get the 'yes' or the 'I do' out on my wedding day. And the pastor said, you gotta say it. You can't just nod.''
His agent Jens Beck was not in Hartford, but watched the tears flow on television.
''It was emotional for everybody around him,'' Beck said. ''We all knew what he's capable of, how talented he is. We knew the first win was going to be very special.''
Those in his inner circle already knew Watson was a big bopper with a big heart.
The PGA Tour's driving distance leader from 2006-2008 has never been the macho man those 315-yard bombs would suggest. The bright pink shaft of his driver might give a hint of that.
But his father's condition and a scare with his wife, Angie, whom doctors thought for a time might have a brain tumor, has made him more determined than ever to give back.
Already supporting his church, junior golf programs in Pensacola, Fla., and North Carolina and Birdies for the Brave, Watson is now looking for a charity that supports the families of cancer patients.
''Bubba's always been great with charity, even before he came on tour,'' Beck said. ''You're not going to find a guy with a bigger heart than Bubba Watson.''
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the talented Watson might be managing his career and dealing with his father's illness.
''He doesn't always know how to handle the situation, how to be supportive enough,'' Beck said. ''It's what all relatives face in a situation like that. You want to do something, but you don't know what to do and what to say.''
So during Watson's two-week break after the British Open, he spent all but two days in High Point, his first time with his family since his victory.
''My dad got out of the house and came with us,'' Watson said. He and Angie were also joined by her family from Canada. He said they played at the lake, his golf exploits limited to the television show.
''My dad is a teddy bear now as he gets older,'' Watson said. ''Growing up, he was like a soldier. The Watson family doesn't hug. We don't say 'I love you.' So now it's a lot different. He's changed a lot; as a family we've changed a lot.''
Growing up on the Florida panhandle, Watson was introduced to the game by Gerry, who took him to the golf course when he was 6 years old, handed him a 9-iron and told him to beat the ball down the fairway.
''Now look at me after beating a 9-iron on the fairway. Coming from Bagdad, Florida, I never dreamed this,'' Watson said at Hartford.
There might be more dreams ahead, more once-unfathomable hugs, more tears. He pushes the boundaries with his driver, but Watson might find his big heart stretched to its limits, too.