Augusta, United States – Bubba Watson was the man to catch for the 50 other golfers who made it through to Masters weekend at Augusta National.
The 35-year-old champion from two years ago blasted clear of the field on Friday with a five-in-a-row, back nine birdie blast that briefly raised the roof on what was otherwise a relatively sedate day.
By the time the dust had settled, Watson was leading by three at seven-under-par 137 after rounds of 69 and 68, making him the only man in the field capable of creating Masters history by firing four rounds in the 60s.
Closest to him is quiet Australian John Senden, who is at four under, with veteran Dane Thomas Bjorn, unheralded Swede Jonas Blixt, rising US star Jordan Spieth and, most menacingly, defending champion Adam Scott a further shot back.
Watson, who endured a year in the golfing wilderness after his emotional Masters win in 2012, said he had got himself back to the basics and was “being a kid again and just rejoicing.”
Whether he will still be rejoicing at the end of Saturday's third round remains to be seen as the chasing pack Ä an intriguing blend of old hands and young guns - seek to reel him in.
Five back of the lead, evergreen Freddie Couples, the 1992
Masters winner, led a record six 50-and-over players into the weekend. The old mark for Champions Tour-aged players to make the cut was four, most recently done last year.
Fiji's 51-year-old Vijay Singh, the 2000 Masters champion, and 56-year-old German Bernhard Langer, the Masters winner in 1985 and 1993, will be playing partners in the middle of the pack Saturday.
Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez, 50, and 56-year-old Scotsman Sandy Lyle, the 1988 Masters champion, tee off together early, Lyle on 148, one behind Jimenez.
And 55-year-old American Larry Mize, who chipped in from 140
feet on the second playoff hole to beat Greg Norman for the 1987
green jacket, is on 146.
Then there are the new kids on the block led by 20-year-old Spieth, who is one of 11 of the record 24 first-time Masters players to make the cut on four-over 148.
Spieth exudes all the confidence of youth, saying there is no reason he cannot become the youngest-ever winner of the Masters on Sunday.
“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,” he said.
A total of 17 players were grouped within six strokes of Watson in a leaderboard dominated by Americans, but still with an international flavor.
This year, for the first time since 1994, there was no Tiger Woods and no Phil Mickelson on the weekend at the Masters. Four-time winner Woods is absent through injury and three-time champion Phil Mickelson missed the cut for the first time since 1997.
First out on another day of clear blue skies and hot sunshine at Augusta National was former world number one and pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlory, who scraped into the weekend by sinking a nervy five-footer for par at the last on Friday evening. – Sapa-AFP