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Augusta, Ga. - Bubba Watson, the 2012 Masters champion, concedes his mind was not on golf last year.
"I was still celebrating my green jacket," Watson told reporters Friday. "How many green jackets you got? If you had one, you would celebrate it for a year or two."
For more than 18 months, Watson disappeared in the green jacket, drinking in its charms and playing golf as if staggering from overindulgence.
"Never been drunk before," he said. "But it was a hangover from the green jacket."
Watson hit bottom at the end of the 2013 season when he finally looked past the green jacket and saw that he had fallen to 38th in the PGA Tour's FedEx playoff standings. He was left off the 12-man U.S. team at the year-end President's Cup competition.
"Those things hit you," he said. "You ask yourself, 'Are you going to dedicate yourself? Are you going to practice?' It took time, but I knew I was ready to come back."
For two days, Watson has made a convincing case that his immoderation in the wake of a first major championship has ebbed. With five consecutive birdies on the back nine Friday - a streak during which he sank a 35-foot putt that broke 90 degrees and swatted a tee shot 186 yards with a 9-iron - Watson vaulted into the halfway lead with a 4-under par 68. Coupled with his 69 on Thursday, Watson had a 3-stroke lead over Australian John Senden and a 4-stroke advantage over four others, including defending champion Adam Scott, the 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, Masters rookie Jonas Blixt and journeyman Thomas Bjorn.
But the leaderboard also had an older pedigree. Fred Couples, 54 years old but ageless in the early rounds of the Masters, was tied for seventh at 2 under par. It is the fifth successive year that Couples has been in the top 10 after two rounds of the Masters.
Five other players 50 years or older also made the cut: Miguel Angel Jimenez, Larry Mize, Vijay Singh, Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer.
There were some glaring omissions from the list of top contenders, which will leave the final weekend lacking in some star power. Phil Mickelson missed the cut for the first time in 17 years, completing his two rounds in 149 and 5 over par. With Tiger Woods out because of an injury, this weekend will mark the first time in 20 years that the final rounds of the Masters will be played without Mickelson or Woods.
Also not making the cut were Sergio Garcia, Luke Donald, Charl Schwartzel and Ernie Els, who were all at 5 over par. Zach Johnson and Graeme McDowell finished at 6 over, Dustin Johnson was at 7 over and Angel Cabrera, last year's runner-up, posted a two-day total of 8 over.
Swirling, gusty winds made for an unpredictable day that led to a bevy of quirky shots and outcomes. Rory McIlroy ended up in the azaleas when his approach shot appeared to strike a sprinkler head next to the 13th green and bounded in the air. McIlroy, who just made the cut at 4 over par, also flew his tee shot over the par 3 fourth green and over the adjacent fifth tee, ending up next to an out-of-bound fence.
First-round leader Bill Haas, who went from shooting 68 on Thursday to 78 on Friday, had to play a shot one-handed and backward because of a lie by a tree. Brandt Snedeker played a shot on his knees from heavy growth in the rough.
"It was pretty tough out there," said Garcia, who played with Watson. "Though not so much for Bubba."
When Garcia was asked if Watson's streak of five birdies surprised him, he said: "Not really, because everything he had been doing before that was impressive. He just made a few more putts and was a little more impressive on those five holes."
Watson's birdie run began when he knocked his tee shot on the dicey par-3 12th hole to within 3 feet of the hole. His second shot on the par-5 13th hole left him about 14 feet for eagle. On the 14th, he had a curving downhill putt that was almost 'L' shaped, but it went in.
"I was lucky because Sergio chipped from behind me and his ball rolled right over my coin on the green," Watson said. "So I knew where to hit it and how hard. Without Sergio's chip, I probably would have three-putt."
Watson's chip on the 15th hole stopped about 4 feet from the hole, which made for an easy birdie. His titanic 9-iron to the 16th green nearly went in the hole for an ace.
His only glaring mistake was bogey at the 18th when he missed a 4-foot putt. But it was just his second bogey of the tournament. Overall, Watson's putting has been one of the most significant improvements in his game this season. It has come about, he said, primarily because of a new putter that is a half-inch longer than the one he had been using for years.
"It lets me have a more athletic putting stroke," Watson said. "So after nine years of missing all of them, I'm starting to make a few."