Bubba Watson hits his tee shot on the 15th hole during the second round of the 2014 The Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (USA TODAY Sports: Michael Madrid)
AUGUSTA — Bubba Watson rolled in five birdies in a row to snatch the outright lead in the second round of the 78th Masters on Friday and surge into contention for a second green jacket in three years.
While most of the world’s best golfers were struggling just to make par in brutally tough conditions at Augusta National, Watson produced a masterful display to grab the early clubhouse lead.
The American, who won the championship in an epic playoff two years ago, followed up his opening 69 with a four-under-par 68 to reach the halfway stage at seven under.
The maverick left-hander made his first bogey of the tournament at the ninth hole and also dropped a shot at the last when he missed a short putt but reeled off five successive birdies from the 12th to seize control of the first major of the year.
That left him with a three-shot advantage over his nearest rivals, overnight leader Bill Haas and fellow American Jimmy Walker, who were both at four under with more than half their rounds to finish and the firming course playing even harder.
With the wind starting to pick up, making the notoriously fast greens even more difficult to read, the traditional roars around the Georgian pines were replaced by groans and sighs.
Denmark’s Thomas Bjorn, playing in the morning when conditions were less tormenting, was one of the few players to make up ground, birdieing four of his last five holes for a 68 to finish at three-under.
“It’s a tricky golf course…if you’re not quite on, it becomes extremely difficult out here,” Bjorn said. “So, I just tried to do the right things and I executed it well.”
South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen, tied for second with Watson and Australia’s defending champion Adam Scott overnight, briefly grabbed a share of the lead when he eagled the par-five 13th after hitting his approach to eight feet from the flgastick.
But he quickly tumbled down the leaderboard when he made a triple-bogey eight at the 15th, then dropped another shot at the last to finish at level par.
“On this type of golf course, you know that can happen. You just need to focus and get on with it,” said Oosthuizen, who was beaten by Watson in a playoff for the 2012 title.
“It’s more disappointing on Sunday when something like that happens. At the moment, I’m in a good position for the tournament.”
Australia’s Marc Leishman, who finished tied for fourth last year, briefly held the outright lead at five under when he birdied his first three holes before dropping a whopping 10 strokes over his remaining holes.
Phil Mickelson, a former three-time champion, was in danger of missing the cut for the first time at the Masters since 1997 after he took a triple bogey at the deceptively tricky par-three 12th hole.
Scott, playing in the penultimate group, made a shaky start when he found the fairway bunker with his opening drive and bogeyed the first hole.
He dropped another shot at the fourth hole to slip back to one under.