Bubba Watson made his first bogey of the week on his 27th hole on Friday at Augusta (the par-4 ninth), one of only two blemishes in an otherwise flawless two days of golf for the 2012 Masters champion, who charged to the top of the 2014 leaderboard with a second-round 4-under 68.
Watson went out in even-par, after making birdie on No. 7 and then that bogey. But it was a completely different story on the back side, when he went on an eye-popping (or club-chewing, if you’re a certain Bubba from Bagdad) five straight birdies to take a three-shot lead into the clubhouse.
After flying the ninth green with his approach, Watson had an extremely difficult third shot on the sloped putting surface. He put that faux pas behind him quickly, with consecutive birdies at 12, 13, 14, 15, 16 -- a torrid run that got him to 8-under for the week and a four-shot lead over Bill Haas, who was in the afternoon wave.
He got Friday’s party started with a perfect wedge shot to the pin and a kick-in birdie putt on the 12th. On 13, his second shot from the first cut with a 7-iron landed above the hole and he easily rolled it in on his second putt.
On 14, Watson faced a severe right-to-left, 15-foot breaker and drilled it dead center.
A chip from above the hole on 15 led to another short birdie putt.
"I made a solid par on 11, hit a great iron shot into 12 and made a birdie somehow there, and 13’s gettable with ... the direction of the wind so I had a 7-iron in there, just missed my eagle," Watson explained to ESPN about what sparked such a sensational spate of golf on what the five-time PGA Tour winner considers the easier side of the course.
"Got lucky on 14, I made that long putt," he continued. "Saw Sergio [Garcia’s] chip so I got to follow that and again hit a pretty decent iron shot. The wind took it a little bit on 15, so a little up and down there, and a great iron shot at 16 to cap it off."
Bubba saved his best birdie play for last on the par-3 16th, playing the slope of the green perfectly. With the pin back left, he hit a 9-iron from 176 yards to the upper right side and watched it drift down the slope, just past the hole, leaving another tap-in.
"I thought that was it, I thought it was going in," said Watson. "I made a hole-in-one in a practice round there last year so when [the crowd] stood up behind the green I thought it might go in. I wish it was a little bit closer; that putt was pretty tough."
Watson’s only other mistake came on the par-4 18th, when he mishit his approach shot to the left, immediately calling out, "Mud ball! Mud ball!" That led to a bogey and a 7-under for two days of work.
Watson was coming off a stellar opening round, in which he found 16 greens in regulation.
"I missed two greens -- one by six inches, one by three feet," he said on Thursday. "I putted both of those, made pars."
Friday’s birdie barrage came to an end on the 17th, when he pushed a long putt to the left but easily tapped in for par. His five birdies in a row came up one shy of the Masters records for consecutive birdies to -- who else? -- Tiger Woods (2005) and Steve Pate (1999).
Watson came into the week with a 2013-2014 record that included an allergy-induced withdrawal from Bay Hill and six top-five finishes, including a win at the Northern Trust Open -- his first tour victory since the Masters triumph two years ago. He remarked that he was more comfortable at Augusta for this edition of the men’s first major of the season than when he returned last year as defending champion.
"This year, I’m trying to get the jacket back," noted Watson, who seemed to be of two minds about the pros and cons of being just one of the guys in the field. "You’re not the man, the Champions Dinner is not about you, it’s about [defending champion] Adam [Scott].
"You want that feeling again, you want that back," he said, "and somehow I’m lost in the crowd so it’s good that I can just go around my practice rounds, not too much media attention, and I can just play golf and practice like I want to."
Well, maybe not so much now, since Bubba will likely enter the weekend The Man, or at least one of a select few atop the Masters leaderboard.