Watson, Blixt make early charge at Masters
Bubba Watson of the US plays a shot out of a bunker on the second hole during the second round of the 78th Masters Golf Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 11, 2014 in Augusta, Georgia - by Emmanuel Dunand
Watson, the 2012 Masters champion from the United States, opened with a 69 and on Friday opened with six pars and a birdie at the seventh to reach four-under.
That was the same mark as Bill Haas, who fired a four-under 68 to lead the field of 97 after 18 holes. Haas was among those set to tee off in the final groups of the afternoon.
Blixt, one of a record 24 first-time Masters players this year, birdied the second and third holes to join the leaders on four under.
Australia's Marc Leishman opened with three birdies to briefly take the lead.
But Leishman, who only qualified for the Masters based on his major career-best fourth-place showing last year at Augusta National, fizzled as quickly as he flashed, taking bogeys at the fourth, fifth and seventh holes to fall back to two under.
Also on two under was 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen. The South African who lost to Watson in a 2012 Masters playoff, made bogeys at the fourth and seventh holes and a birdie at the eighth.
Defending champion Adam Scott of Australia, who opened on 69, was in the penultimate group while two-time major winner Rory McIlroy, a fan and oddsmakers favorite this week, was set to be the last man off the tee after opening on 71.
Haas, the 2011 US PGA playoff and Tour Championship winner seeks his first major title.
As warm and dry conditions allow the undulating greens to harden and become lightning-fast, Watson marveled at how the club recovered from ice storm damage in February that led to the removal of the giant 17th hole pine known as the Eisenhower Tree.
"The course is in great shape. This is probably the best I've seen it in a long time," Watson said. "It's amazing. With the storms they had here, the ice storms, to have it in this pristine condition is remarkable. It sets up well for me."
Patience the key for McIlroy
McIlroy, who has taken the bulk of the crowds in the absence of world number one Tiger Woods, is paired with young rising US stars Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, both in their first Masters.
McIlroy says the firmer conditions will make an already crowded field of contenders open to even more of the field, which includes a record 24 first-time Masters players.
"I think it brings the guys that don't hit it as far into the mix a little bit more, because it's not just about power then, it's about precision, it's about putting your ball in the right place and it becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots," McIlroy said.
"It almost becomes like chess, where you're just making these moves. That hasn't been my forte in the past, but I'll learn to love it this week."
The low 50 and ties and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead will make the cut.
Among those players with concern about reaching the weekend after poor starts are three reigning major champions -- British Open champion Phil Mickelson (76), US Open champion Justin Rose (76) and 2013 PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner (80).
Also seeking a turnaround Friday are Ernie Els (75), Jason Day (75), 2013 Masters runner-up Angel Cabrera (78) and England's Luke Donald (79).