AUGUSTA, Ga. — By the time Bubba Watson tapped in for a textbook par on the final hole of his opening round at the Masters, he had that familiar feeling.
Watson felt both a surge of energy and a sense of ease at Augusta National, a satisfaction in the patience and precision that paved his way to a three-under-par 69 Thursday.
A solid day's work. Three-way tie for second place. One shot off the lead set by Bill Haas.
Two years ago, Watson left these grounds with a green jacket, triumphing in a playoff over Louis Oosthuizen with a swashbuckling, crowd-pleasing approach.
But in a quest for another Masters title, the 35-year-old simply dialed in his iron play on the tournament's first day, doing surgical work during a bogey-free round in which he hit 16 greens in regulation with birdies at Nos. 3, 13 and 15.
For Watson, not having the pressure to defend that 2012 Masters title has seemingly lifted a weight off his shoulders.
"There's so much you're doing when you're defending champ," he said, "and my mind can't handle it. … For me it was just overwhelming — the champions dinner, everybody still congratulating you. I just never got the focus."
Not that arriving at Augusta as reigning champion is a death sentence. Sure, only Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods have repeated. But last year's winner, Adam Scott, found his groove early Thursday, joining Watson and Oosthuizen at three under with an excellent round of his own.
Scott made five birdies and would have gone to bed as the leader had he not splashed his tee shot on the 155-yard, par-three 12th and settled for a double bogey.
For Scott, unlike Watson, competing as defending champion delivered an elixir for those usual Augusta nerves.
"I always said the first few holes of the Masters is the most nervous I ever get on a golf course," Scott noted.
"I kind of felt like, 'What's the worst that can happen?' " Scott said. "I'm still going to be a Masters champion."
To prevail again, Scott will need to retain such serenity for at least 54 more holes to leapfrog Haas and hold off all other comers. That won't be easy.
Nineteen of 97 players finished the first round under par. But even those who will begin the second round in red numbers left the 18th green Thursday with a huge exhale and a feeling of survival.
On what appeared to be a terrific day weather-wise, unpredictable winds and firming greens presented plenty of challenges.
On top of that, a series of demanding pin positions heightened the course's degree of difficulty.
It's not that the greens weren't receptive to approach shots after rain Monday, but more that they felt slick and increasingly dangerous on chips and putts.
"For it to be like this on Thursday, it's going to keep drying up," said Rickie Fowler, who carded a 71. "It's going to be tough this weekend."
Added Rory McIlroy, also in the crowd of eight players at 71: "They're fast already. By Sunday, they're going to be pretty dicey. Every year you play practice rounds here, and then you get to Thursday and there's just a little extra fire in the course."
Matching that fire requires mental stamina and a feel for when to get aggressive and when to be patient. Watson and Scott have mastered that task before. And the last two Masters champions found ways Thursday to position themselves for another charge.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times