KAUPULEHU-KONA, Hawaii (AP)—Tom Watson knows the simple solution to turningaround an ugly putting performance.
“Make them,” he said. “Just make them all and that’s what I did on theback nine.”
Watson birdied six holes on the back nine for a 6-under 66 and a two-strokelead Saturday over senior newcomer Fred Couples after the second round of theChampions Tour’s season-opening Mitsubishi Electric Championship.
The 60-year-old Watson, coming off a win with Jack Nicklaus in the ChampionsSkins at Kaanapali, overcame a rocky start and finished with nine birdies andthree bogeys for a 15-under 129 total.
Players had a second day of mostly calm and hazy conditions at Hualalai GolfCourse, with the volcanic fog from Kilauea covering the Kona Coast. The scoreswere low again on this resort course, which is among the easiest on tour. Watsoncalled it a quarterhorse race.
“I hope my horse doesn’t trip. I’m letting loose. I’m not holding back onthe reins,” he said.
Couples, who shot a bogey-free 66, is making his first official ChampionsTour 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 toaccomplish a goal and that’s to win,” Couples said. “It’s been done before. Idon’t know how many guys have played their first champions event and won. Butthat’s my goal.”
Fifteen players have won in their Champions Tour debut. They includeNicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player and three players last year, includingTom Lehman .
Lehman had a 67 to join Michael Allen (66) at 12 under. They were a strokeahead 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 werelast paired together at the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George’s.
After momentarily giving away the lead when he missed three very short parputts on the front nine, Watson surged back to the top with five straightbirdies to start the back nine to reach 14 under and open up a three-strokelead.
The eight-time major winner got the birdiefest going by two putting forbirdie on the par-5 No. 10.
“I made my first birdie at 10 and I said, ‘Let’s see how many birdies I canmake on the back nine,’ and I kept on knocking it pretty close … lo andbehold, that was the turnaround I needed,” Watson said.
He followed with birdie putts from 8, 15 and 12 feet, and added a tap-in forbirdie 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 2008Outback 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 the2008 Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf. Watson was winless last year, but finishedsecond at the British Open.
Watson, who was bogey free Friday, struggled with his putter early. Hestarted 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 nexthole, which dropped him a stroke off the lead.
“I have a tendency of yanking it way inside and shut the face, and I justcan’t get away from it,” Watson said. “It’s a quirk in my stroke. I’ve foughtit 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 regainedcontrol of his putting and the lead.
Watson also led the first two rounds and took a three-stroke advantage intoSunday 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. The1992 Masters champion was steady all day, but his best shot came on aspectacular par save from the bunker on No. 11.
“You don’t hole bunker shots for par. It might be my only time I do thatall 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 towithin a couple feet of Couples’ shoes.
He then holed his second bunker shot to save par and a share of the lead at10 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 upand get it going, which I did on the second one,” Couples said. “That washuge.”
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, ahole he triple bogeyed Friday. Watson took the lead right back with tap-inbirdies on the next two holes. He nearly holed it from the bunker on the par-5seventh, with his ball hitting the pin.
Lehman started the day with a birdie, hitting a wedge from about 80 yards to3 inches of the cup. But he couldn’t make a move after his birdie on No. 5 with10 straight pars.
The 74-year-old Player shot his age and for the 29th time in his storiedcareer, but was in last place at 6 over. Player got the birdie he needed toreach his age by holing a bunker shot for birdie on 16.