AUGUSTA, GA. — Bubba Watson is a curious study. He can charm you with his home-spun Southern hospitality. And he can flabbergast you with his sometimes peculiar behavior.
But, oh boy, when he is right, focused and motivated – put a pink-shafted driver in his hand and watch him work over a golf course. That is when the “Bubba way” is often a good way.
Referring to himself as the forgotten man, even two years after winning the Masters Tournament, Watson thrust himself back in the spotlight Friday by shining on a difficult day for scoring.
Powered by a run of five consecutive back-nine birdies, Watson shot a 4-under-par 68 to grab the solo lead at the midway point of the 78th Masters at Augusta National Golf Club.
He is at 7-under 137 after two rounds, and three strokes clear of the field. Australia’s John Senden, who captured his second career PGA Tour title at the Valspar Championship a month ago, also fired a 68 on Friday, and sits in second place alone at 140.
Defending Masters champion Adam Scott (71), Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn (68), Sweden’s Jonas Blixt (72) and up-and-coming American Jordan Spieth (70) are all four shots back at 141.
Tied for seventh, Seattle’s Fred Couples (71) is still in the championship hunt. Puyallup’s Ryan Moore (72) missed the cut at the Masters for the first time in his career, tying for 52nd.
As for Watson, he blitzed the back nine – much like he did in the final round of the 2012 Masters to get into a playoff and defeat South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen – to open up a big lead.
It started – and ended – with perfectly-struck 9-iron tee shots at both par-3 holes (Nos. 12, 16) that left him with short birdie putts. He also reached both par-5 holes (Nos. 13, 15) in two shots, and two-putted for birdie.
“You know … it’s not science here,” Watson said. “It’s try to hit the greens, and if you’re hitting the greens, that means you’re obviously hitting your tee shots well. That’s all I am trying to do.”
In his post-round press conference, Watson was asked about his extended hangover from winning the 2012 Masters. Last season, he did not win a tournament, was knocked out of the FedEx Cup playoffs and failed to make the U.S. Presidents Cup squad.
“I was still celebrating my green jacket – how many green jackets you got?” he responded to a reporter, deflecting the question with his usual corny sense of humor.
Then he straightened up and got serious, reflecting on his blue-collar background. Things were tight growing up in tiny Bagdad, Fla. His mother worked two jobs, and his father worked construction just to pay the bills.
With no formal golf training, Watson developed a swing on his own.
“So when you think about that, (winning the Masters) was an accomplishment for a guy named Bubba … with my upbringing,” Watson said. “My year, my career was complete after that win.
“It was going to take me some time. You know, I do everything my way. I learned the game my way. I figured it out my way. So it just takes me a little bit longer with the mental focus and drive to get back where I am today.”
Chasing the big-hitting Watson are four veterans 40 years or older – Senden (140); Bjorn (141); Couples and Jim Furyk (142).
Of course, the sentimental favorite is Couples, the 1992 Masters winner. And he got a similar break Friday to the one he had in the final round of his title-winning chase at the 12th hole.
Couples tee shot went way left and landed on the steep embankment in front of Rae’s Creek. Yet his golf ball stopped mere inches from the water, keeping him safe and dry.
It led to a bogey, but it could have been a whole lot worse.
“I got very, very lucky,” Couples said. “I hit, and right when the ball was going, the wind kind of turned around the other way. And luckily I was aiming far enough left it didn’t catch the big bank and the slope.”
As notable as the names on the leaderboard were, so were the ones who missed the cut. The biggest one was Phil Mickelson, who saw his consecutive Masters cuts streak end at 16.
Done in by a triple bogey-6 at No. 12, the three-time Masters champion shot 73, and missed the cut by one stroke.
“I’ll probably (watch it on television),” Mickelson said. “It will kind of be my punishment.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442