AUGUSTA, Ga. — Bubba Watson found the notoriety, responsibilities and attention that accompanied being the reigning Masters champion took a toll on his performance not only in last year’s tournament, but for more than a full season.
He had what he termed “a hangover from the green jacket.”
Yet the 2012 champion would love to be beset with those same demands all over again, as soon as Sunday night.
Five consecutive birdies on the back nine at Augusta National Golf Club in Friday’s second round have Watson in command of the 78th Masters.
He shot a 4-under-par 68 to take a three-shot lead at 7-under 137 over Australian John Senden into the weekend.
“This year I’m trying to get the jacket back,” Watson said. “You’re not the man [this year], the champions dinner is not about you, it’s about Adam [Scott]. You want that back again.”
Watson was one of four players to shoot a tournament-low 68 on Friday. Senden’s 68 moved him into sole possession of second at 140, while Thomas Bjorn’s 68 included birdies on four of the final five holes and moved the Dane into a tie for third at 3-under 141 with Jonas Blixt of Sweden, 20-year-old Jordan Spieth and Scott, the reigning champion.
Past U.S. Open winner Jim Furyk, 54-year-old 1992 Masters champion Fred Couples and Jimmy Walker, a three-time winner this season, are five strokes back and tied for seventh at 142. Furyk fired the only bogey-free 68 on a breezy day on a course that is playing more firm and fast by the day.
“It felt more like a 64 out there with the way the golf course was playing,” Senden said.
Watson tied for 50th at Augusta last year as the reigning champion. While Scott has seemingly benefitted from the added attention and confidence gained from performing down the stretch at Augusta National, it has taken Watson an extra year to reap any on-course benefits from his 2012 win.
“I was in awe when I was a champion, when it was my dinner,” Watson said. “Media attention is on the defending champion. You’re asked all these questions. … You have to give up the green jacket. You have to give it back to them, so there’s a lot of things going on.
“For me I didn’t know how to handle it the best way, and so I didn’t play my best golf last year. But this year I come in here with no media attention, just out there practicing. It’s easier for me.”
Increased demands on Watson’s time following his Masters win from all of his sponsors coincided with Watson growing into his role as a new father after he and his wife, Angie, adopted son Caleb in March 2012. The win also caused Watson to reflect on his career.
“You’ve got to think about where I’ve come from, my mom having two jobs to pay for my golf, my dad working in construction,” Watson said. “… Besides the Lord, marrying my wife and having our child, [the Masters win] is right there, it’s fourth or fifth on the list. My year, my career was complete after that win. So yeah, obviously I was going to have a hangover.”
Perhaps in search of motivation, Watson didn’t have to look further than the 2013 U.S. Presidents Cup Team standings and PGA Tour money list. He failed to make the team, and dropped from fifth on the money list in 2012 to 44th last year.
“You’re thinking, ‘You have the ability to do this. You have the ability to perform at a high level. You’ve done it before,’ ” said Watson, who has five PGA Tour wins. “You know, are you going to dedicate yourself? Right now, we are at that level and we are back to playing pretty good golf.”
Watson entered the Masters with a win, two runner-up finishes and five top-10s in eight starts this season. He was a shot out of the lead at 3 under when his birdie barrage began.
He hit a 9-iron to a few feet on the par-3 12th, two-putted for birdie on the par-5 13th and holed a long, curling birdie putt on the 14th after watching playing partner Sergio Garcia chip along the same line. “Without Sergio’s chip, I probably would have three-putted it,” Watson said.
He chipped to a couple feet for birdie on the par-5 15th nearly aced the 178-yard par-3 16th with a 9-iron, as his ball crept just past the hole down a slope to a back-left pin location. A bogey on the 18th dropped his lead from four shots to three.
Watson is more than a bit of a different character and player on tour. He has an unorthodox self-taught swing and has never had a swing coach. His 9-irons on the 12th and 16th holes Friday traveled about 150 and 180 yards.
“I guess you could say I could hit any shot with any club,” Watson said. “That doesn’t mean it’s going to go perfect every time, it just means right now it’s going pretty decent.”
With his smooth, textbook swing, Scott entered the second round a shot off the lead of Bill Haas at 3 under after the first round and quickly fell back to even par with bogeys on three of the first five holes.
But he rallied on the back nine, sticking his tee shot close on the 12th and holing a pair of 8- to 10-foot birdie putts on the par-5 13th and 15th holes to get back to even for the day and 3 under for the tournament.
“[The confidence] was a little frail after a 39 on the front,” Scott said. “… Patience came into it on the back nine and I had to remember the good shots [Thursday] and managed to make something happen to get back into red numbers.”
Coming off a 68 Thursday, Haas remained at 4 under through eight holes, but over the next five holes he made bogey, bogey, double bogey, bogey and bogey to fall to 2 over. He rebounded with birdies on the 14th and 15th holes, but finished with bogeys on 17 and 18 and is tied for 26th at 2-over 146 following a second round that was 10 strokes worse than his opening round.
“I was happy to make those two birdies on 14 and 15 to make myself feel a little better about things, but then I just compounded the disappointment with bogeys on 17 and 18,” Haas said.
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284.