- Bob Harig, Senior Golf Writer
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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- One of the game's most flamboyant yet erratic players, Bubba Watson, took a new approach to Augusta National this year. And it's working just fine through two rounds at the Masters.
Known for his long drives and homemade swing -- not to mention the pink shaft on his driver -- Watson has hit a few foul balls in his time on the PGA Tour.
But with a strategy of simply trying to hit greens, Watson burst into the lead Friday on the strength of five consecutive birdies on the back nine.
"I'm trying to get the jacket back," Watson said. "I want that feeling again."
Watson's 4-under-par 68 along with his opening 69 got him to 137, 7 under through two rounds of the year's first major championship. By going so low, Watson knocked a slew of players out of the tournament -- including three-time winner Phil Mickelson, who missed the cut at Augusta for the first time since 1997.
The Masters cuts to the top 50 and ties through 36 holes and anyone else within 10 shots of the lead. Mickelson finished in a tie for 52nd.
Watson's closest pursuer was Australia's John Senden, who birdied 14 and 15 on his way to a 68 and 140 overall. Others in the hunt include defending champion Adam Scott (72, 141), 20-year-old Jordan Spieth (70, 141) and 54-year-old Fred Couples (71, 142).
"Bubba is tearing it up," Spieth said. "So we've got to go get him."
Watson, who won here in 2012 in a sudden-death playoff over Louis Oosthuizen, said his goal was to keep from looking at leaderboards and simply do his best to hit greens.
That's not always easy around Augusta National, but Watson has hit 28 of 36 greens, having missed just two in his opening-round 69. He has made only two bogeys, including one at the 18th on Friday when he missed a short par putt after an excellent pitch shot.
"If I can hit greens that means I've hit good tee shots, and I hit good irons shots and just trying to make par from there and throw in a birdie here and there," Watson said.
He did more than that Friday after making his first bogey of the tournament at the ninth hole. Watson was the last player in the field to make a bogey, but it hardly hurt him as he bounced back with birdies at the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th holes.
The latter appeared from the tee as though it had a chance to a be a hole-in-one, the ball trickling ever so slowly from right to left down a slope and sliding past the cup. He converted the birdie putt to lead by 4 strokes over first-round leader Bill Haas, who eventually staggered to a 78 and now is nine strokes back.
Watson won the Masters two years ago with an improbable curving wedge shot from the trees to set up a par that earned him the green jacket.
The popular victory, however, took its toll, as Watson struggled with his game much of last year. He didn't add another victory, the fifth of his career, until he captured the Northern Trust Open at Riviera in February.
And aside from a first-round withdrawal after shooting 83 last month at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, it's been a strong year for Watson. In addition to his win at Riviera, Watson has four other top-10 finishes.
That doesn't mean he felt any more comfortable here, although he said being a year removed from defending his title was almost a relief.
"It's pressure," he said. "You're playing the best golf course in the world. So when you're out here, it's a little bit different. The emotions are different because I'm trying to get the green jacket again. I had it, there's so much you're doing when you're defending champ, and my mind can't handle it.
"Adam [Scott] seems to be doing pretty well with it. But for me it was just overwhelming. The champions' dinner, everybody still congratulating you, so I just never got the focus. I played really bad on Sunday last year.
"I'm coming back with the take that I want the jacket again," Watson said. "I'm coming back with a different mindset, full of energy. I haven't had any media [leading up to the tournament] because nobody cares about the guy a couple of years ago. So it's been good."
This is the fifth straight year that Couples, the 1992 winner, has gone to the weekend in the top 10 -- he was leading two years ago -- but he's never been able to hang on.
"I can't panic," said Couples, looking to become the oldest major champion in golf history. "You're not going to pick up two or three shots here because you want to. It's not that kind of course. You've got to hang in there, expect a tough shot here and there. It's going to be a tough day tomorrow."
Five shots back, Couples was joined at 142 by Jimmy Walker, a three-time PGA Tour winner this season who shot 72, and Jim Furyk, whose 68 matched Watson, Senden and Bjorn for the best round of the day.
Rory McIlroy, who has found himself in some unusual places during his Masters career, found himself in more unusual predicaments Friday and finished his round at 4 under, making the cut on the number.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
4dMicah Adams, ESPN Stats & Information