Leader Watson reeled in 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
The 35-year-old champion from two years ago opened with a bogey, but a superb eagle at the second, where he hit his approach to five feet, steadied the ship.
As he teed off at the par-three fourth at eight under, Watson led by five strokes from a chasing pack headed by Danish veteran Thomas Bjorn, unheralded Jonas Blixt of Sweden and 20-year-old American rising star Jordan Spieth.
But nervy bogeys at the fourth, sixth and seventh opened the door and birdies from Bjorn and Blixt at the ninth made it a three way tie for the lead on five under.
In the clubhouse early on three under were 50-year-old Spanish shotmaker Miguel Angel Jimenez, who had a tournament-best 66, and American favorite Rickie Fowler with a 67.
Also on the move up the leaderboard was Spieth and countryman Matt Kuchar, both on four under.
Defending champion Adam Scott of Australia found himself going the other way as he fell from three under to level par after seven holes as his hopes faded of becoming the first back to back Masters winner since Tiger Woods in 2002.
The early chase was led by Jimenez, who had a six under 66, which equaled the Masters' best by a player over 50 years old.
Age, he said, was no barrier.
"If you are 50 doesn't mean that you cannot play well. I'm still moving. I'm still flexible. I still hit the ball. I hit the ball longer than ever," he said.
Fowler's round of 67 was built around picking up four strokes at the par-five.
"I really had to take advantage of the par-fives. Hadn't really done that the fist two rounds and I did today," he said.
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.
But he came undone 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.
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.
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 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," he said.