Houston, we have a golfer
After facing down death at 13, Braxton Watkins doesn’t see a bad golf lie as such a big deal.
Watkins, son of Barry and Hollye Watkins, on Tuesday signed a national letter of intent with Houston. The only thing that might surprise the people who knew him in seventh grade, when doctors discovered a brain tumor, is that he will play golf, not football.
A star running back in junior high in De Queen, Ark, Watkins set the school record for scoring. That night he became violently ill, vomiting and passing out. Within hours he was at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, where an MRI revealed a mass in his brain.
“After the doctor told my parents, he came in and told me. He said I would never play football again,” Watkins said. “My dad, who’s pretty reserved, was in tears.
“It’s one of those things that seems like it’s going to kill you at first, but it turned out well.”
That summer he began to focus on golf, and shot a 59 at the golf club in Idabel, Okla. In the meantime, his parents took better jobs in Texarkana. Watkins soon was a terror in area juniors’ tournaments.
In high school he continued to blossom under Pleasant Grove High School coach Rick Rogers, a former Baylor golfer and brother of six-time PGA Tour champion Bill Rogers, a Houston alum.
Watkins has won every district and regional tournament he’s played in and finished in the top flight in three state championship tournaments. He was third as a freshman, second as a sophomore and fourth as a junior.
“I haven’t come through at the state tournament yet, but this is going to be the year,” he said with the same calm assurance that marks his persona on the golf course.
“He can hit a really bad shot and he doesn’t let it bother him,” said his coach. “You can’t teach that.”
In that respect, Watkins demonstrates at an early age something that Bill Rogers did not learn until he turned pro, said Rick Rogers.
“He learned to play the shot he had,” Rick Rogers said. “He was totally focused on that shot, and only that shot.”
Rogers recounted a tournament last summer when Watkins’ tee shot left him solidly behind a tree.
“He hit it straight up and over,” he said. That was followed by a wedge shot to within three feet of the cup.
“I just go with the flow,” Watkins said in a calm voice that is belied by his eyes, which often flash the intensity of a relentless competitor. “You can’t get mad on a golf course.”
Off the tee, Watkins is usually long and straight. Part of that is because he is a natural athlete, part comes from being in impeccable condition because of the regimen he keeps to control his tumor, which is treated not with chemotherapy and radiation, but with diet and exercise.
Prescribed a strict, low-salt diet, Watkins is up well before dawn every morning preparing meals. By 5:30 a.m., he and his buddies are working out at Gold’s Gym before heading off to Pleasant Grove High School, where he earns straight A’s.
He undergoes a monthly MRI and, so far, the tumor has shrunk a little.
“Nobody pushes him but himself,” said his coach. “We were at a tournament last year and I came out of my motel room to find him and another player doing pullups on the back of a staircase. I nearly stepped on their fingers.”
Still, the ability to drive long is not the strength of Watkins’ game. He makes his best shots close to the cup.
“I watched him for a while and asked him what he thought was the best part of his game,” Rogers said. “He said, ‘My putter.’ That’s it, that’s the most important part. If you think you are a good putter, you are. If you think you aren’t, you aren’t.”.
Though the sounds and sights of a football game still tear at his heart, Watkins is often found on the sidelines, doing something to whip up the crowd.
He’s a pretty fair basketball player, too. With three of Pleasant Grove’s starters playing on the school’s Class 4A, Division II state championship team, he filled in at forward and guard, averaging more than 10 points a game and helping the team get off to a 10-2 start. He has returned to the fairways.
“Coach (Josh) Gibson always introduces me as one of the five best athletes in his program,” Watkins said. “I really appreciate that.”
Bill Rogers had an opportunity to watch Watkins and had a short message for his brother.
“He said, ‘He’s got it,” Rick Rogers said.
“When you hear that from somebody who has been No. 1, that builds confidence,” said Watkins, who takes his motivation from many sources.
“Tiger Woods said that talent can only take you so far,” he said. “After that, it’s hard work.”