When Bubba Watson came back to Augusta National last April a year after his stirring playoff victory to win the 2012 Masters, by his own admission he was overwhelmed by having to fill the role of defending champion. It clearly showed when he stumbled to a 77 on Sunday and tied for 50th place.
Fast forward a year later and Watson has been a far different golfer over his first two rounds this week. A day after shooting a 3-under-par 69, the native of Bagdad in Northern Florida scorched the back nine Friday with a rousing run of five consecutive birdies, marred only by a bumbling bogey at the 18th. That left him atop the leaderboard with a splendid 68 and 7-under 135, three shots clear of his closest pursuer. Once again, he’s definitely in an Augusta National frame of mind.
“The emotions are different because I’m trying to get the green jacket again,” Watson said. “There’s so much you’re doing when you’re the defending champion, and my mind can’t handle it. For me, it was just overwhelming, the champions’ dinner, everybody still congratulating you, so I just never got the focus. But I’m coming back with the take that I want that green jacket again.”
He’s hardly alone, and there are plenty of gifted players close behind to ensure a fabulous weekend, even if Tiger Woods, sidelined after back surgery, and Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut, won’t be among them.
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By day’s end, John Senden kept Australia’s hopes alive for a second Masters winner in a row with a 68 for a 36-hole total of 4-under 140 and solo second. His countrymen have won three of the past four PGA Tour events, and Aussie Adam Scott is the defending champion.
Only a shot behind Friday morning, Scott went down under on his 3-over 39 front side, but rallied on the back and managed an even-par 72 and 3-under 141 to stay in contention. He was in a four-way tie for third with 20-year-old Jordan Spieth (70), the 2013 PGA Tour rookie of the year, Danish veteran Thomas Bjorn (68) and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt (71).
First-round leader Bill Haas was not as fortunate, soaring to a 78 that left him at 2-over 146 and nine shots behind.
And Fred Couples, 54, had his second 71 in a row and was in a three-way tie for seventh at 142. That 2-under group included Jimmy Walker, a 35-year-old Masters rookie with three victories on the PGA Tour this season, and former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk.
“Can I win it? Yeah, that’s why I’m here,” Couples said. “If I play well [Saturday], which I haven’t the last couple of years, then I’ll answer that question again. But none of us can stop Bubba. If he goes out and does what he did [Thursday] and [Friday], he’s the guy to beat.”
Watson didn’t start to heat up until his back nine after an even-par front. His birdies in bunches began at No. 12, the signature hole on the course. He smacked a 9-iron to within two feet of the pin and easily made the putt for his first birdie on the back.
At No. 13, the 510-yard par 5, he got a fortuitous break when his tee shot clipped a branch down the right side and kicked into the fairway. His second shot left him a 10-footer for eagle, but he missed and had to settle for a birdie that at least gave him the tournament lead for the first time.
On the 440-yard 14th, he made a remarkable 35-footer that had at least six feet of right-to-left break, one of those putts that starts off in Fort Myers, veers over toward Palm Beach, then heads back toward Tampa. At the 530-yard 15th, his second shot missed the green, landing pin high in the right short rough. He pitched within four feet and made that putt for four in a row.
His most breathtaking shot may have been his 9-iron at the 170-yard 16th. His ball landed 25 feet above the hole, trickled back down the slope and stopped four feet away. He made that putt for five in a row and was clearly threatening the Masters back nine record of 6-under 30.
Turned out, it was an idle threat. He missed a 25-footer for birdie at 17 and hit his second shot at No. 18 into the gallery on the left side of the green. He poked another sterling chip that used the slope of the green above the hole to get within five feet, but missed for only his second bogey.
“I don’t think I’m in the zone yet because I made a bogey on that last hole,” Watson said afterward. “That five-hole stretch was good. It’s one of those where you’re not focused on what you’re doing.
“You don’t know that you’re making all those birdies. You’re focused on one shot at a time. You’re not thinking you just made your second birdie, third birdie, you’re just trying to make the cut.”
That sort of focus seemed to elude Watson ever since that miraculous hooked shot out of the woods in a playoff against Louis Oosthuizen in 2012 helped secure his first major title and literally rocked his world.
“My year, my career, was complete after that win,” he said. “Never been drunk before, but [there was] a hangover from the green jacket. It’s going to take me some time. I do everything my way. I figured it out my way. It just takes me a little longer with the mental focus and drive to get back to where I am today.”