For the second time in three years, the field at Augusta National may be looking up to Bubba Watson on Masters Sunday.
Watson, the 2012 green jacket winner, carded a four-under 68 on a day that saw most of the field stay stagnant or move backward. The 35-year-old was buoyed by a string of five straight birdies on his back nine, which had him angling for the course record before petering out.
Watson, who scored 69 on Thursday, is at seven under overall. He holds a three-stroke lead over Australian John Senden and a four-stroke advantage over Thomas Bjorn, Jonas Blixt, Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth
First-day leader Bill Haas is now in 26th place after a frustrating eight-over. He's two over for the tournament. Following a day where Haas overcame difficult course conditions to be a surprising 18-hole leader, he was one of many to succumb to a frustrating afternoon on the course.
Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia lead a bevy of high-profile names who won't see the weekend. Mickelson followed up his four-over 76 on Thursday with a one-over 73 a day later and straddled the cut line down to the last golfer. He and Garcia were both five over on their aggregate scorecards, falling just one stroke shy of making it into the weekend.
With Tiger Woods already withdrawn due to a back injury, there could be decidedly less star power heading into the weekend. As noted by Kelly Tilghman of Golf Channel, it's been two decades since neither Tiger nor Phil played a Masters weekend:
How long since both Phil and Tiger didn't play the weekend at Masters? Tanya Harding & OJ Simpson were making headlines (1994)— Kelly Tilghman (@KellyTilghmanGC) April 11, 2014
Without notable names carrying the field, Augusta's causal viewing numbers might be down from a year ago. That said, Watson's scintillating run on the back nine Friday was enough to make anyone tune in for the weekend.
Heading to the 12th tee at even for the day, Watson had mostly slogged through an uneventful round. He was still hanging around the leaderboard at three under overall, but consistently just saving par and holding fort as his putter failed him. Through his first 11 holes, Watson had one birdie, one bogey and nine pars.
Over his next seven holes, he'd card five birdies against one bogey. Starting with the par-three 12th, Watson nailed five consecutive birdies to vault his way to the top of the leaderboard, dwarfing the aggregate scores of most of his competitors. A birdie on No. 16 got Watson all the way to eight under before he went par-bogey to finish out his day.
"I'm coming back with the take that I want the jacket again," Watson told reporters. "I'm coming back with a different mindset, full of energy. I haven't had any media [leading up to the tournament] because nobody cares about the guy a couple of years ago. So it's been good."
Watson, long one of the wild cards at every event he enters, has ascended to the pinnacle by decidedly dialing back. He's bombing shots on the tee box but has made a decidedly strong effort to use his irons to put himself in a good place for birdie. Through two rounds, Watson has hit more than three quarters of his greens in regulation.
Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, has had a far different experience thus far—though still a solid one. He followed Thursday's 69 with an even par day to sit among the muck of golfers tied for third, though it was far from an uneventful round. With his driver spraying shots and leaving him off the fairway, Scott began the day with three bogeys in his first five holes before settling down.
Scott parred out to take the turn at three over (even-par overall), but he quickly found his game on the back nine. Like Watson, he birdied No. 12 and then both of the back-nine par fives (Nos. 13 and 15). He's one stroke behind Senden, a fellow Aussie who could make it two straight from Down Under to take the green jacket. Last year, Scott became the first Australian to win the Masters following years of heartbreak.
Among the many a stroke behind Scott is the man who might provide the best story of the event, 54-year-old Fred Couples. A day after going 71 to throw his name into the fray, Couples carded another one-under score Friday to continue his surprising run in a tie for seventh.
Couples' only career major championship came at Augusta in 1992, but he's far from a stranger to Masters leaderboards. He's finished inside the top 15 each of his last four trips to the hallowed course. Although his putting has been up and down, Couples has hit 72.2 percent of his greens in regulation and has hit more than two-thirds of his fairways.
According to ESPN's Justin Ray, Couples is the only player to be in the top 10 through the first two days each of the last five years. Recent history says he'll fade a bit over the weekend, and a five-stroke deficit might be too much to overcome for the 54-year-old. That said, becoming the oldest major winner in history sure wouldn't be a bad way to distract from the lack of Mickelson and Woods.
The exact polar opposite of Couples is 20-year-old Jordan Spieth. Playing in his first Masters, Spieth, perhaps the most promising young American golfer, has acquitted himself well. He paired his opening-round 71 with a 70 on Friday, continuing to drive the ball with accuracy and poise far beyond his age.
Spieth's round was highlighted by an eagle on the par-five 15th, which helped atone for his three bogeys on the day. As Ray points out, though, the odds are not pointing in the Texan's favor overall:
Jordan Spieth makes eagle to move to -3. No Masters rookie has won since 1979, and nobody under age 21 has won it... ever.— Justin Ray (@JRayESPNGolf) April 11, 2014
No matter, he's certainly had a better 36 holes than his playing partners—both of whom are in the "who's next" conversation. Rory McIlroy continued his dispiriting habit of Augusta implosions in Round 2 with a 77, pushing him from the outskirts of the leaderboard to the cut line. McIlroy had as many double bogeys as birdies (two) and needed a par on No. 18 to avoid missing his first cut at Augusta since 2010.
It's safe to say any bets placed on the favorite will go back to the house. Patrick Reed, the third in their pairing, was cut after going eight over through 36 holes.
Lee Westwood, Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker are among notables hanging around at even par, but this is shaping up to be a decidedly unpredictable weekend. Watson's three-stroke lead gives him a massive advantage, and it's hard to quibble with the accuracy he's displayed thus far.
But Watson, throughout his career, has also been known to fall off the rails. He's carded just one final-round score at Augusta better than par his entire career—not coincidentally in 2012. Just one bad round, as Haas learned Friday, can be the difference between wearing the green jacket and descending out of contention.
Phil's gone, Tiger's gone, but anything can still happen.
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