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Paul: Bubba Watson might've created a monster with hilarious, banter-heavy exhibition match

Tony Paul
The Detroit News

Detroit — The PGA Tour has never been one to rush into change.

But here's an easy one to put on the fast-track, thanks to the entertaining and comedic chops of Bubba Watson, Jason Day, Harold Varner III and Wesley Bryan during a practice round masquerading as an exhibition match shown on live TV from Detroit Golf Club on Wednesday.

The showcase less resembled the stuffy image that the PGA Tour holds (and for too long has held dear), and played out more like what you and your buddies look and sound like on a summer Saturday morning, trash-talking your way to $5 a hole.

The only difference: Aware of the mics and cameras, they kept it clean — at least, for the most part.

"Why don't you putt like that normally?" one player asked Watson, after he made a birdie putt on the fourth hole of the match, No. 13 at Detroit Golf Club.

"Taxes," Watson quipped, without missing a beat.

Harold Varner III, left, and Bubba Watson show off the winner's belts after the charity exhibition Wednesday at Detroit Golf Club.

In a tidy two hours, the foursome — headlined by major champions Watson and Day — quoted silly moves ("Elf"), threw $100 apiece in on No. 15 if anyone made an ace (they didn't), dropped a Shake Weight reference, talked pop culture ("Finding Bigfoot," "South Park"), daringly made fun of Tiger Woods' receding hairline, and generally hammed it up for a nationwide golf audience that's starving for live action, given the PGA Tour will go at least five weeks without allowing fans on the grounds. That thirst for live golf content is evidenced by soaring Golf Channel ratings, particularly in the first three weeks of the restart.

The root of the exhibition match, Watson and Varner against Day and Bryan, was charity, of course, notably the Rocket Mortgage Classic's new "Changing the Course" initiative that has set out to end Detroit's digital divide by the year 2025.

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Via donations from viewers and significant donations from Rocket Mortgage ($250,000), Workday ($250,000), Rickie Fowler ($100,000) and Watson, the match raised more than $1 million. Watson announced a $25,000 donation at the end of the match; last year, he donated $20,000 to First Tee of Detroit.

The exhibition also spotlighted the charity endeavors of each of the four. Watson, Day and Varner all have foundations that were discussed in casual conversation on walks up the fairway; Bryan, probably the least known of the four, doesn't, saying, "We give to the local church. We trust their judgment is better than ours."

"That was awesome," said Jason Langwell, executive director of the tournament, who was scrolling through social-media comments, almost universally positive, on his phone following the match.

For the record, Watson and Varner won the match, clinching it on the eighth hole, No. 17, when Varner dropped in a 30-footer for an eagle. That closed out the match 3-and-1.

Varner did a little shimmy on the green.

"I wanted a short practice round," he said.

"I want to hug you right now," Watson said. (He didn't.)

COMPLETE ROCKET MORTGAGE CLASSIC COVERAGE

In an impromptu ceremony just off the 18th green, Watson and Varner were presented the championship belts, which were awarded to Dustin Johnson and Co. following their win in the Area 313 celebrity challenge last year. With no fans this year, because of COVID-19, there was no celebrity challenge, but this might've proven even better. The only thing better than four days a week of golf coverage is five days a week, especially if one of those days allows for fans to get a little peek behind the curtain.

Baseball might be America's favorite pastime, but Inside Baseball has to be a close second.

Amid fan-less golf, Golf Channel and CBS have tried to spruce up their competitive-round coverage, begging and pleading with players to wear mics, but to little success. Many of the players say it takes away focus, they're afraid of saying something off-color, or that the mic packs are too heavy.

No such worries on a sunny, muggy afternoon in the shadows of Palmer Park.

"This might be my first trophy on the PGA Tour," said Varner, the belt wrapped around his waist.

We learned a little bit about each man, though if we learned one main thing, it's just they're pretty much just like us. (OK, with the exception of those half-a-million dollar RVs they have parked around Metro Detroit.)

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They say they weren't betting, though we believe them as much as we believe our buddy who says he can keep up with Bryson DeChambeau off the tee.

Everyone kept it casual, with shorts, except for Day, who boldly wore pants — though when you're from Australia, where it's often 110 degrees on Christmas Day, this scorcher was nothing.

Jason Day tees off during the exhibition match ahead of the Rocket Mortgage Classic.

And best of all, they played fast, ready golf. (And if they can, you can, too!)

If there was one complaint on social media, it's that the players didn't seem like they were very competitive. Don't mistake the nonchalant demeanor for apathy. They still made several birdies and the eagle between them, even if they weren't exactly dialing in on every shot — that's how good these guys are.

There was gobs of ribbing, which was the best part, of course, like when Bryan toe-shanked a driver on the par-5 17th hole, and still outdrove Watson. He made sure to point that out.

Up the 18th fairway, the three others had some fun with a balding Varner, who bemoaned that himself, saying he enjoyed when he could style his hair any way he liked.

"I played in the U.S. Open with a flat-top. It was sick," he said. "Until I shot 79-78."

There was a "Happy Gilmore" reference — "Somebody's closer!"

And there were impressions, like Watson imitating Day's exaggerated, eyes-closed, deep breath before every shot, except for when he putts.

That later actually provided one of the more interesting moments, when, walking up No. 17, Day was asked to explain just what he's doing with that routine.

"When you ask yourself a question, your brain has to answer, and when your brain answers and your eyes are closed, you're able to visualize a little better," Day explained. "You see it, then you go. That's kind of what I do. Everyone else has a certain thing. He (Watson) feels it. Wesley, I don't even know what he does. He just comes to the golf course and looks like Wesley. And Harold, I don't think he has a thought.

"Hey, Harold, do you visualize?" Day shouted.

"I guess," Varner shrugged.

There's no guesswork about what went down Wednesday.

More of this, please and thank you.

tpaul@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @tonypaul1984