AFTER another Augusta National birdie burst, Bubba Watson has a second Green Jacket in his sights. He’s also hoping to use this weekend to lock-up a trip to Gleneagles in September for the Ryder Cup.
Two years after reeling off four straight birdies here on route to becoming Masters champion, the left-hander went one better as he caught fire on the back nine in yesterday’s second round.
By going 2-4-3-4-2 from the 12th, he moved to eight-under for the tournament before dropping a shot at the last. Even so, rounds of 69 and 68 for seven-under total will see Watson head into the final two rounds with a great chance of becoming just the event’s 17th multiple winner.
That’s the immediate target. One of Watson’s long-term 2014 goals is to make Tom Watson’s team for that Ryder Cup. The hangover that followed becoming a major champion cost him a place in the US side for the Presidents’ Cup last year. Now he doesn’t want to be sitting at home again.
“I have a shot at making the Ryder Cup team this year,” said Watson, who memorably teed off amid a crescendo of roars rather than a hushed silence at Medinah in the 2012 match and is lying fourth in the US points table for Gleneagles. “I could really have a good shot at making it with two more great days.”
As defending champion, Watson just scraped into the final 36 holes a year ago before finishing 50th. In an honest assessment of what happened then, he admitted that he’d been unable to handle the extra attention that comes with that honour.
“It’s easier for me [this year],” he said after producing two opening rounds that were described by Australian Jason day as “phenomenal” due to some tough pin positions. “I could enjoy Champions Dinner this time and listen to some of the stories. I was in awe when I was a champion, when it was my dinner.
“You know you’re sitting there amongst the great champions and this year I got to be just a bystander, one of the guys, and it’s Adam’s night. When you’re the defending champion, there’s a lot of things going on and media attention. I didn’t know how to handle it the best way, and so I didn’t play my best golf last year.”
A winner already on the PGA Tour - he claimed the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles and could also have secured the Waste Management Open title in Phoenix - Watson is back firing on all cylinders again and holed putts for fun in that blistering back-nine run yesterday.
“I changed my routine a little bit [this year],” he revealed. “I played nine holes a day starting on Monday, and just tried to save energy as much as I can.”
Watson described his putting stroke these days as “athletic”. It fitted in with the rest of his game, he claimed. Asked to highlight an instance that his athleticism had perhaps separated him from the rest over the last two days, he replied: “I flew it 186 [yards] yesterday on 16 with a 9-iron - I guess it’s all right!”
Watson’s witty. Emotional, too. The tears weren’t far away when he recalled how he’d come from a tough upbringing to become a major champion. “My mom had two jobs to pay for my golf, my dad worked in construction,” he said in reflecting on how his career had slumped last season. “So it’s an accomplishment in those circumstances - a guy named Bubba, too - to win the Masters and my career was complete after that win.
“But, after looking at the FedExCup last year and how bad it was - also missing the Presidents Cup - I’ve dedicated myself again and now I’m back to playing pretty good golf.”
As first-round pacesetter Bill Haas dropped away - his 78 was ten shots more than day one and dropped him to a couple over - Watson’s significant back-nine thrust earned him a three-shot lead over Australian John Senden (68).
Defending champion Adam Scott, who recovered from being three-over for the day after five holes to shoot level-par, is ominously placed a further shot back alongside American dangerman Jordan Spieth (70) and two Europeans - the experienced Thomas Bjorn (68) and Swedish rookie Jonas Blixt (71).
“Patience came into it on the back nine and it’s good to be within shouting distance but I need to get that gap closed tomorrow,” said Scott, who is bidding to become join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only players to win the event back-to-back.
“It’s one day out of a whole career,” said fellow Aussie Senden of his recent win in the Valspar Championship on the PGA Tour. “But I’ve just got to try and keep believing in myself and enjoying it.”
Bjorn is sitting in one of the automatic spots for the European Ryder Cup team. On his round, the Great Dane admitted: “I played solid all the way through and it was right up there [with my best here]. I played poor here last year yet learned so much from that week. It was probably the first time I really understood the golf course completely.”
Blixt is playing it for the first time this week. He’s doing well so far because he isn’t scared by the lightning-fast putting surfaces. “I just love fast greens,” said the two-times PGA Tour winner. “It’s so much fun and I see the lines better.”
If he keeps it up, Blixt is likely to emerge as a serious contender for Gleneagles. With that event in mind, it’s been an encouraging two days so far for European captain Paul McGinley. On his Masters bow, Stephen Gallacher, another of those in the automatic spots, is sitting joint-10th on one-under alongside Welshman Jamie Donaldson, who already looks as though he’s done enough to be on duty on the PGA Centenary Course.
That is certainly the case with Sweden’s Henrik Stenson, last year’s FedEx Cup and Race to Dubai winner, and he’s on one-over, a shot behind both Englishman Lee Westwood and Spaniard Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano.
With Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Francesco Molinari, Martin Kaymer, Miguel Angel Jimenez and Thorbjorn Olesen among the other Europeans to make the cut, the points table could well have a different look to it on Monday morning.
One thing that’s certainly not different in terms of this event is the fact that the old guard normally do well. Not for the first time in recent years, Fred Couples, on two-under, is up near the top of the leaderboard in joint-seventh and he was joined in the last two rounds by Bernhard Langer, Mike Weir, Vijay Singh and Sandy Lyle.
At the other end of the age scale, Australian Oliver Goss has already secured this year’s honour of leading amateur. He shot 71 for three-over - the only one out of the six amateurs in the field to survive after Sheffield teenager Matt Fitzpatrick missed a 12-foot birdie putt at the last to join him.