Updated: Sunday, 13 April 2014 03:37 | By Agence France-Presse

Eagle lifts Watson at Masters

Bubba Watson eagled the par-five second hole as he battled to hold onto an overnight three-stroke lead Saturday as the third round of the Masters unfolded at a baking-hot Augusta National.

Eagle lifts Watson at Masters

Bubba Watson of the US tees off on the first hole during the third round of the 78th Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 12, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia - by Jim Watson

It was the first time he had eagled the hole in 22 starts at Augusta National.

The 35-year-old champion from two years ago blasted clear of the field on Friday with a five-in-a-row, back nine birdie blast that briefly raised the roof on what was otherwise a relatively sedate day.

But he was facing a potential cavalry charge on Saturday with the perfect playing conditions offset by the daunting challenge of negotiating greens made lighting-fast by four days of unbroken sunshine.

Watson did not aid his own cause by bogeying the first after overcooking his approach, but playing partner John Senden, alone in second at four under, did likewise.

Watson promptly hit a superb approach shot to five feet at the second and sunk the putt for an eagle that increased his lead to four strokes.

The early chase was led by Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez, who had a six under 66, the best round of the tournament to date and one which equalled the Masters' best by a player over 50 years old.

That got him to three under for the tournament and right back in the hunt to become the oldest-ever winner of a major tournament.

Rising US star Jordan Spieth briefly moved to within two strokes of Watson with a birdie at the third and on three under after a few holes were Jim Furyk, Thomas Bjorn and Jonas Blixt.

Earlier in the day, Gary Woodland produced a blistering display of shotmaking to match the Masters record of 30 for the front nine, generally regarded as being the harder of the two nine-hole stretches.

And when he birdied the 10th to move from three over at the start of the day to four under, he was tied for second. But he was promptly undone going around Amen Corner, the feared trio of holes from 11 to 13 at Augusta National.

A bogey at 11 was followed by a visit to Rae's Creek at the par-3 12th and a double bogey 5 and Woodland eventually had to settle for a 69.

The lean weekend field of 51 comprised an intriguing blend of old hands and young guns.

Five back of the lead, evergreen Freddie Couples, the 1992 Masters winner, led a record six 50-and-over players into the weekend.

The old mark for Champions Tour-aged players to make the cut was four, most recently done last year.

Fiji's 51-year-old Vijay Singh, the 2000 Masters champion, and 56-year-old German Bernhard Langer, the Masters winner in 1985 and 1993, were playing partners Saturday.

Spaniard Jimenez, 50, and 56-year-old Scotsman Sandy Lyle, the 1988 Masters champion, teed off together.

And 55-year-old American Larry Mize, who chipped in from 140 feet on the second playoff hole to beat Greg Norman for the 1987 green jacket, is on 146.

Then there are the new kids on the block led by 20-year-old Spieth, who is one of 11 of the record 24 first-time Masters players to make the cut on four-over 148.

Spieth exudes all the confidence of youth, saying there is no reason he cannot become the youngest-ever winner of the Masters on Sunday.

A total of 17 players were grouped within six strokes of Watson in a leaderboard dominated by Americans, but still with an international flavor.

This year, for the first time since 1994, there was no Tiger Woods and no Phil Mickelson on the weekend at the Masters.

Four-time winner Woods is absent through injury and three-time champion Phil Mickelson missed the cut for the first time since 1997.

First out on another day of clear blue skies and hot sunshine at Augusta National was former world number one and pre-tournament favorite Rory McIlory, who scraped into the weekend by sinking a nervy five-footer for par at the last on Friday evening.

The Irishman, playing with a marker, sped round he course in double-quick time and three birdies in the last four holes gave him something to smile about for what is certain to be another doomed Masters campaign

"I enjoyed the round, but being first out on a Saturday is not an experience I really want again. The course was fiery from the start and the guys will find it pretty interesting this afternoon," he said.

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