AUGUSTA, Ga. — Bubba Watson never led during the first three rounds of the 2012 Masters Tournament but rallied on the final day and won in sudden death. The former Georgia Bulldog is on top now, halfway through the 78th Masters, with some breathing room.
Watson, 35, ripped apart the second nine at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday with five consecutive birdies en route to 4-under-par 68 – which included bogey on No. 18 – to build a three-shot lead over John Senden, of Australia. It matched the largest 36-hole lead since 2006.
Senden, who qualified for the Masters on March 16, when he won the Valspar Championship, also had a second-round 68 and is alone in second place.
Australian and defending champion Adam Scott made a spirited comeback to stay within shouting distance of Watson. Scott, who opened with 69, was 3-over after five holes Friday but played his final seven in 3-under, finishing with 72, tied for third place, four behind Watson.
Also tied for third are Masters rookies Jordan Spieth (70) and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt (71). Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn (68) is also tied for third. Spieth and Bjorn closed out their rounds with birdies on No. 18.
Watson, who opened with 69 and is the only player to shoot in the 60s both days, is at 7-under 137. It is the lowest 36-hole total since Rory McIlroy’s 134 in 2011.
First-round leader Bill Haas, who opened with 68, struggled to 78 (with 41 on the back nine) and is nine shots behind Watson.
At least he made the cut (148), which past champions Phil Mickelson (76-73), Charl Schwartzel (73-76) and Zach Johnson (78-72) did not. Other notables missing the cut were Sergio Garcia (74-75), Dustin Johnson (77-74) and former Augusta State star Patrick Reed (73-79).
Reed, who is ranked 23rd in the world, caught some flak by saying he was a “top-five player in the world” after winning at Doral in early March.
Watson, who is ranked 12th, referenced that comment after his round Friday, saying after he dropped to 28th in the world ranking after a winless 2013 that he was striving to get back to being a “top-25 player in the world. I’m not going to say top-five player in the world. Sorry, Patrick Reed.”
Watson has the top billing in what will be the first Masters weekend since 1994 without Tiger Woods or Mickelson in the field. Woods is recuperating from back surgery.
Senden, who is playing in his fifth Masters, missed the cut in three of his previous four starts but is comfortable on the course now.
“I’m excited to keep doing what I’ve been doing, playing good golf,” said Senden, who matched Watson with six birdies and two bogeys Friday. “And if I keep believing in myself and enjoying it, that’s the difference when you’re under the pressure, if you can keep a smile on your face. There’s plenty of ups and downs on this golf course.”
Senden and Watson will tee off at 2:45 p.m. in today’s final pairing.
“I’ll be nervous on the first tee,” Senden said. “I’ve been nervous every day teeing off, that’s a good thing. But it’s about me just doing the work, just get out there, get it down the middle and play the next shot.”
In two trips over Augusta National Golf Club, Watson has nine birdies, including six Friday, when he birdied five in a row, Nos. 12-16.
The run was reminiscent of Watson’s final-round birdie run on Nos. 13-16 in 2012.
“I’ve done it before,” he said.
After his round Friday, Watson revealed what he called the secret to scoring here: hitting greens in regulation.
“It’s not science,” Watson said. “Try to hit the greens and two putts and maybe throw in a birdie here or there.”
He has hit 28 of 36 greens in regulation, tied for second with Spieth and Jimmy Walker.
Watson, a long hitter with his self-proclaimed “slap cut” off the tee, is averaging nearly 300 yards a drive, ranking fourth through two rounds.
Watson has hit 20 of 28 fairways off the tee, setting himself up for his shots to the green.
“He’s playing extremely well,” said Luke Donald, who was paired with Watson in the first two rounds. “He’s hardly missed a shot the last couple of days.
“He’s dominating the course with his length and leaving it in the right spots. He’s not taking too much risk on, but when he has wedge and sand wedge he can go fire at some pins and be able to stop it.”
Watson had 32 putts Thursday and 26 on Friday. He credits a more “athletic stroke” that occurred by lengthening his putter a half-inch for his recent success.
“So after nine years of missing all of them, I’m starting to make a few,” Watson said.
The highlights of his five-birdie streak came on the par-3 16th, where he made a 4-footer, and on No. 14, where Watson rolled in a 40-footer from off the back of the green. Garcia, one of his playing partners, had a chip that went over Watson’s marker on No. 14, giving him the line for his putt.
“He checked it up, and then it went straight sideways about 15 feet, and he hit it about 8 inches from the hole,” Watson said. “So, for me having that putt from the same line, I knew where to aim it, knew kind of what the speed was. It was a lot different than what I was thinking, and then somehow it just went in. Without Sergio’s chip, I probably would have three-putted it.”
Watson, who admits he can become easily distracted, is trying to stay focused on what’s ahead of him on the golf course.
“Just keep my head down, not trying to focus on the crowds cheering for me and stuff,” he said. “Trying to stay level, not too energized, not too excited.”
He did just that after making the 40-footer for birdie on No. 14.
“I gave a wave to the crowd and everything, but I just tried to think, ‘No big deal, let’s just go to the next hole and focus on the next shot,’” he said. “That’s what I have to do. When I do that, I play pretty well.”
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