KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii – Tom Watson knows the simple solution to turning around an ugly putting performance.
“Make them,” he said. “Just make them all and that’s what I did on the back nine.”
Watson birdied six holes on the back nine for a 6-under 66 and a two-stroke lead Saturday over senior newcomer Fred Couples after the second round of the Champions Tour’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship.
The 60-year-old Watson, coming off a win with Jack Nicklaus in the Champions Skins at Kaanapali, overcame a rocky start and finished with nine birdies and three bogeys for a 15-under 129 total.
Players had a second day of mostly calm and hazy conditions at Hualalai Golf Course, with the volcanic fog from Kilauea covering the Kona Coast. The scores were low again on this resort course, which is among the easiest on tour. Watson called it a quarterhorse race.
“I hope my horse doesn’t trip. I’m letting loose. I’m not holding back on the reins,” he said.
Couples, who shot a bogey-free 66, is making his first official Champions Tour start on a sponsor exemption to the winners-only event.
“It’s not like you’re going to be a nervous wreck, you just want to accomplish a goal and that’s to win,” Couples said. “It’s been done before. I don’t know how many guys have played their first champions event and won. But that’s my goal.”
Fifteen players have won in their Champions Tour debut. They include Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player and three players last year, including Tom Lehman.
Lehman had a 67 to join Michael Allen (66) at 12 under. They were a stroke ahead of Mark O’Meara (65) and Phil Blackmar (67).
Watson was paired with Lehman and will be with Couples on Sunday.
“Freddie and Tom gives our tour some street cred,” Watson said.
Couples said he’s looking forward to playing with Watson again. They were last paired together at the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George’s.
After momentarily giving away the lead when he missed three very short par putts on the front nine, Watson surged back to the top with five straight birdies to start the back nine to reach 14 under and open up a three-stroke lead.
The eight-time major winner got the birdiefest going by two putting for birdie on the par-5 No. 10.
“I made my first birdie at 10 and I said, ‘Let’s see how many birdies I can make on the back nine,’ and I kept on knocking it pretty close … lo and behold, that was the turnaround I needed,” Watson said.
He followed with birdie putts from 8, 15 and 12 feet, and added a tap-in for birdie on 14 after a near-perfect 8-iron shot.
The last time he had five birdies in a row was the first round of the 2008 Outback Steakhouse Pro-Am, where he went on to win.
After parring 15, Watson hit an 8-iron to 12 feet for his final birdie.
Watson is seeking his first win since teaming with Andy North to take the 2008 Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf. Watson was winless last year, but finished second at the British Open.
Watson, who was bogey free Friday, struggled with his putter early. He started with a three-putt from 18 on No. 1 where he missed a 3-footer for par. He then missed a gimme on par-3 eighth and a 4-foot putt for par on the next hole, which dropped him a stroke off the lead.
“I have a tendency of yanking it way inside and shut the face, and I just can’t get away from it,” Watson said. “It’s a quirk in my stroke. I’ve fought it for a long time. I haven’t been able to solve it yet.”
Just as it appeared Watson would self-destruct on the greens, he regained control of his putting and the lead.
Watson also led the first two rounds and took a three-stroke advantage into Sunday in 2005, but lost in a playoff to Dana Quigley, who closed with a 66.
Couples, who turned 50 in October, used his length to his advantage. The 1992 Masters champion was steady all day, but his best shot came on a spectacular par save from the bunker on No. 11.
“You don’t hole bunker shots for par. It might be my only time I do that all season, but it was good timing,” he said.
After his second shot skipped across the green and rolled into the bunker, Couples chunked his sand shot, which bounced off the grass and rolled back to within a couple feet of Couples’ shoes.
He then holed his second bunker shot to save par and a share of the lead at 10 under, drawing a wide grin from Couples.
“I did not want to make a bogey. I thought I could chop at it and pop it up and get it going, which I did on the second one,” Couples said. “That was huge.”
He closed the round with birdies on Nos. 16 and 17.
Lehman took the outright lead at 10 under by birdieing the par-3 fifth, a hole he triple bogeyed Friday. Watson took the lead right back with tap-in birdies on the next two holes. He nearly holed it from the bunker on the par-5 seventh, with his ball hitting the pin.
Lehman started the day with a birdie, hitting a wedge from about 80 yards to 3 inches of the cup. But he couldn’t make a move after his birdie on No. 5 with 10 straight pars.
The 74-year-old Player shot his age and for the 29th time in his storied career, but was in last place at 6 over. Player got the birdie he needed to reach his age by holing a bunker shot for birdie on 16.