Bubba Watson takes a three-shot lead into the third round of golf’s Masters Tournament, which won’t have Phil Mickelson or Tiger Woods playing on the weekend for the first time since 1994.
Watson, the 2012 Masters winner, ran off five straight birdies during a 4-under-par 68 yesterday at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, that left him at 7 under at the midway point of the season’s first major championship. John Senden is 4 under par, one shot better than defending champion Adam Scott, Jordan Spieth, Thomas Bjorn and Jonas Blixt.
In his title defense a year ago, Watson said he felt the pressure of media demands and fan expectations. He struggled to make the cut for weekend play by a single stroke -- 10 shots off the lead -- and had the first Saturday tee time, starting more than five hours before the leaders. More comfortable a year later, he’ll tee off in today’s final third-round pairing with Senden at 2:45 p.m. Eastern time.
“Just got to keep my head down, same thing I’ve been doing the last two days, same thing I did earlier this year,” said Watson, who’s had five top-10 finishes in eight starts this season, including a win at the Northern Trust Open in February. “Just try not to focus on the crowds cheering for me, try to stay level -- not too energized, not too excited.”
Absent from the final two rounds of the season’s first major championship are Woods, a four-time champion who withdrew from the tournament after surgery on a pinched nerve in his back, and Mickelson, a three-time winner whose streak of 17 straight Masters cuts was ended by two triple bogeys.
Australia’s Senden, who won the U.S. PGA Tour’s Valspar Championship last month, matched Watson’s 68 yesterday, making six birdies to recover from bogeys on two of the first four holes. Scott, who last year became the first Australian golfer to win the Masters, also rebounded from a poor start in shooting an even-par 72 yesterday, with three birdies over the second nine holes after three bogeys on the front nine.
“It was very tough. Tricky pin positions again and the greens were so firm,” said Scott, who is in today’s third-to-last pairing at 2:25 p.m. “Patience came into it on the back nine. I managed to make something happen to get back in the red numbers. It’s good to be in shouting distance.”
Also in contention again is 54-year-old Fred Couples, whose Masters win in 1992 came the year before Spieth -- one of the 24 first-time participants in the field -- was born.
Couples, who is 2 under after consecutive rounds of 71, was one stroke off the lead entering weekend play last year, then shot a third-round 77 and tied for 13th place. The year before, he led after two rounds and shot 75 on Saturday while tying for 12th.
“I haven’t been able to keep putting these rounds together the past few years,” said Couples, who has a 2:15 p.m. tee time. “But I feel good here. I’m very excited because I hit the ball well. I have to keep doing that.”
Jim Furyk is also 2 under after a second-round 68 as is Masters rookie Jimmy Walker, who has rounds of 70 and 72.
Kevin Stadler, Kevin Streelman, Russell Henley, Jamie Donaldson and Stephen Gallacher are the only other players below par, at 1 under.
The top 51 in the 97-player field qualified for the third and fourth rounds, with the cut at 4 over par.
Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who entered the tournament tied with Scott as the oddsmakers’ co-favorite, made the cut at 4 over even though he shot a second-round 77. He had today’s first tee time and parred the opening hole.
Mickelson, at 5 over after rounds of 73 and 76, missed the cut for the first time since 1997. Asked if he would watch the rest of the tournament on television, Mickelson said he probably would.
“It’s kind of my punishment,” he said.
Mickelson was undone by a triple-bogey in each of the first two rounds. He made a 7 on the par-4 seventh in the first round and a 6 yesterday on the par-3 12th, where he took three shots from greenside bunkers.
“I go along, making pars, putting the ball in the right spot and you just get a bad situation,” said Mickelson, who hasn’t had a top-10 finish in his first nine PGA Tour starts this season. “And instead of one shot sliding, two or three are going away. That’s the kind of stuff, when you’re playing tournament golf and you’re mentally sharp, you don’t do.”
Luke Donald, Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els, Webb Simpson, Graeme McDowell, Zach Johnson, Dustin Johnson and Keegan Bradley also failed to advance to weekend play.
Watson, 35, said he took a different approach this year, playing only nine practice holes a day starting Monday to conserve energy and help with his mental focus. His opening rounds of 69 and 68 are a vast improvement over his 75-73 start a year ago and even better than his scores of 69 and 71 during his run to the Masters title in 2012.
Yesterday, his birdie streak started on the par-3 12th hole in a section of the course known as Amen Corner. He capped his surge up the leaderboard with another birdie at the par-3 16th, where his tee shot sailed over the pin and then spun back, just missing a hole-in-one.
“You know, I do everything my way,” said Watson, who has won once in eight tries when holding at least a share of the second-round lead. “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 to where I am today. This year started off a little bit better than last year.”
The second-round leader or co-leader has gone on to win the Masters 28 of 77 times. Since 2000, the only two players to do that were Mike Weir in 2003 and Trevor Immelman in 2008.
“None of us can stop Bubba if he goes out and does what he did,” Couples said of the past two days. “He’s the guy to beat.”