AUGUSTA, Ga. — Ben Hogan took his mysterious swing secret with him to the grave, leaving behind a cold trail of theories and debate as to what the Hawk figured out that produced so much ball-striking brilliance and consistent success.
Bubba Watson has a secret, too. The difference between Watson and Hogan — let’s be honest, there’s lots of differences — is that Watson is perfectly willing to share his.
Watson unveiled it Thursday after an opening-round 69. He reiterated it on Friday, following a splendid 68 at Augusta National Golf Club that gave Watson a three-shot lead at the midpoint of the 78th Masters. He’s trying to win this tournament for the second time in three years, and at 7-under-par 137 leads John Senden, who is 4 under after a second-round 68.
Defending champion Adam Scott (72), 20-year-old sensation Jordan Spieth (70), Thomas Bjorn (68), and Jonas Blixt (71) were next, tied for third at 3 under.
Interested in scoring well and putting yourself in contention at the season’s first major? Simple, according to Watson. You might say elementary, even.
“It’s not science here. Hit the greens. If you’re hitting greens, that means you’re hitting your tee shots well,” Watson said. “All I’m trying to do is just hit the greens. Two putts, maybe throw in a birdie here or there. That’s what I’ve done the last two days, and it’s worked out so far.”
Watson missed only two greens in regulation the first round — by a combined 3 feet, and he used a putter for his birdie attempt both times. The result, from a day when he putted for birdie on all 18 holes? The only player in the field without a bogey.
That first bogey finally came on Watson’s 27th hole, at the ninth on Friday. But he kept hitting greens — 12 of 18 in Round 2 — and when he authored the defining stretch of the tournament so far — five straight birdies from Nos. 12-16 — he had built a four-stroke lead. A missed shorty at the last was Watson’s only other dropped shot.
He’s learned, or at least he thinks he’s learned, the proper way to play Augusta National. He also thinks he’s properly adjusted his mental approach to the season, following a disappointing 2013 that saw him go winless and get left off the US Presidents Cup team.
Blame his 2012 Masters playoff victory, because Watson thinks his first major championship created a lengthy hangover, from which he’s just now recovering.
“I didn’t know how to handle it the best way, and so I didn’t play my best golf last year,” he said. “Never been drunk before, but a hangover from the green jacket. I was still celebrating. If you had one, you would celebrate it for a year or two.”
Watson won for the first time since the 2012 Masters earlier this year at Riviera, and liked not being the focus when he arrived in Augusta this week because he wasn’t the defending champion.
A kick-in birdie at No. 12, followed by a two-putt birdie at No. 13, a 35-foot slider for birdie at the 14th, and close birdies at Nos. 15 and 16 drew attention, and Watson will definitely be the focus now.
Only one of Watson’s five PGA Tour wins were earned when he held the 36-hole lead, and only two Masters winners since 2000 rode a second-round lead to victory: Mike Weir in 2003, and Trevor Immelman in 2008. So even though Watson has a three-shot lead, getting across the line won’t be easy.
“I’ve won golf tournaments. I’ve been lucky enough to win here. Just got to keep my head down, same thing I’ve been doing the last two days, same thing I did earlier this year,” Watson said. “Trying to stay level, not too energized, not too excited. What I have to do is just try to do the same things I did the last two days, and hopefully I can do it the next two days.”
Senden qualified for the Masters three weeks ago with his second tour win, but he’ll be paired with Watson in the final group, off Saturday at 2:45 p.m. Right in front of them will be Bjorn and Blixt, neither of whom has won a major; this is Blixt’s first Masters.
Spieth is another first timer, and thanks to a birdie at No. 18, will be paired with Scott in one of Saturday’s marquee groups. Despite his age and inexperience, Spieth doesn’t seem wide-eyed by his position, or opportunity.
“I expected myself to play well. I felt like the course suited my game. I really like this place. The beginning of the year a big goal of mine is that I wanted to focus on getting in contention at a major and see what that felt like, see if I could pull it off and what I can learn from it,” Spieth said. “Right now we’re 36 holes in, so I think I’m still far from contention, we’re only at the halfway point. I think contention is back nine Sunday. But I’m in a position to put myself into that contention and see what I can do.”
Scott has been in contention plenty at majors, and finds himself there yet again.
He survived a scratchy start (three bogeys over the first five holes) and then used birdies at the 12th, 13th, and 15th to get close.
“It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for, but given everything, I’m absolutely satisfied,” Scott said. “I knew if I finished the day [under par] I would be in a pretty good position going into the weekend.”
At least Scott has a weekend tee time. Not so for Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, and Sergio Garcia, who missed the cut by a shot, or Angel Cabrera and Keegan Bradley, who missed by many more.
They’ll all be home, watching on television, seeing if Watson can keep capitalizing on his secret. Trouble is, he’s not been too keen on keeping it to himself.Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.