AUGUSTA — Rory McIlroy figured a dry and unforgiving track would favor the thinkers in the second round of the Masters.
Instead, it was Bubba Watson – a grip-it-and-rip-it guy from the womb – who found traction and raced to a three-shot lead heading into the weekend at Augusta National. Watson won the 2012 Masters and is now shaking off the “hangover” from that victory, he said.
He looked clearheaded Friday, shooting a 4-under 68 that left him 7-under for the tournament, well clear of John Senden, who sits at 4-under, and a four-man group at 3-under that includes defending champion Adam Scott and 20-year-old wunderkind Jordan Spieth.
“I do everything my way,” said Watson, noting that he’s never had a swing coach or a golf lesson. “I learned the game my way. So it just takes me a little bit longer with the mental focus and drive to get back to where I am today.”
After his Masters win, Watson went winless the rest of the 2012 season. He had three top-10 finishes, and no victories, in 2013.
“I was still celebrating my green jacket. How many green jackets you got?” he asked a reporter with a smile. “If you had one, you would celebrate it for a year or two.”
Watson looks back to championship form now. He had six top-10 finishes, including a win at the Northern Trust Open, this season coming into Augusta, and he now has posted his first consecutive sub-70 rounds at the Masters. The 97 players here this year combined to shoot 11 rounds below 70 in the first two days, and Watson is the only player to do it both days.
“That’s a phenomenal round today,” Jason Day said. “To be 8-under on this course the way it’s been set up the last couple of days. The green speeds and the firmness of the greens are very difficult for a lot of the players. It seems like he’s handling that pretty well. I think he’s only had maybe one dropped shot over the last 36 holes, so he’s playing phenomenal golf. But then again, we still have 36 holes left and anything can happen, especially at Augusta.”
First-round leader Bill Haas, a Greenville resident, lost ground Friday, shooting 41 on the back nine on the way to a 6-over 78 that left him tied for 26th at 2-over for the tournament.
“I found it to be very tricky today,” Haas said. “There were some good scores, better scores today than yesterday. So I can’t say that it was harder than yesterday. I just didn’t execute the shots.”
Big names such as Columbia’s Dustin Johnson (7-over), Phil Mickelson (5-over) and Jason Dufner (9-over) fared worse and missed the cut. Day and Rory McIlroy (4-over) barely became part of the 51 players to earn a spot on the weekend.
Mickelson’s miss means this will be the first time since Tigers Woods turned pro in 1997 that one of golf’s four majors will play the weekend without Mickelson or Woods, who is sitting out this year’s Masters due to a back injury.
Meanwhile, Watson birdied five straight holes, Nos. 12 through 16, and was 8-under before a bogey at No. 18. He seemed a far cry from the player who finished 7-over last year as the defending champion.
“I was in awe when I was a champion,” he said. “There’s a lot of things going on when you’re defending champion. For me, I didn’t know how to handle it the best way, and so I didn’t play my best golf last year.”
Watson’s 2010 Masters win coincided with the arrival of his son Caleb, adopted by Watson and wife, Angie, two months before that victory.
“All of that, learning how to become a family man, learning how to become a great champion, learning how to get back to practicing the right way and focusing the right way on the golf course, a lot of hard work to get back to this level,” he said.
It’s coming together now in what Watson calls his “rejoicing” year.
“What I’m trying to do is go back to being a kid again and just rejoicing,” he said. “I’ve said this whole year is about rejoicing and thinking about, as a kid, you’d be so excited to play on the PGA Tour for nine years. So when you hang your head because you shot 77 in the last round or an 80 in the last round, it really doesn’t mean anything. As a kid, you don’t think about the bad days. You always think about the great days. It’s all about not focusing on the bad stuff. It’s about how lucky I am to be able to play golf for a living and just keep going from there.”