AUGUSTA, United States - Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson were set for an early charge Friday at the 78th Masters while fellow major champions Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott settled in for a long wait.
Bill Haas, the 2011 US PGA playoff and Tour Championship winner seeking his first major title, seized the 18-hole lead Thursday by firing a four-under par 68 at famed Augusta National.
South Africa's Oosthuizen, the 2010 British Open winner, and US star Watson, who beat "Oosty" in a playoff to claim the 2012 Masters title, shared second on 69 and were set for morning tee times in perfect playing conditions.
"I can see myself doing really well this week," Oosthuizen said.
As warm and dry conditions allow the undulating greens to harden and become lightning-fast, Watson marvels 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." Haas starts in the early afternoon but it will be the very end of the day that holds the greatest excitement for the spectators at Augusta National.
Patience the key for McIlroy
McIlroy, the two-time major champion who has taken the bulk of the crowds in the absence of world number one Tiger Woods, will be the last man to tee off, launching his second round just before 2pm (1800 GMT) after an opening 71.
McIlroy, paired alongside young rising US stars Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, says the firmer conditions will make an already crowded field of contenders open to even more of the field of 97, 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." In the group just ahead of McIlroy will be defending champion Adam Scott, who matched Watson and Oosthuizen for second with a 69, the best opening round by a defending Masters champion since 1995.
"Getting off to a good start in major is huge, because I think they are the hardest tournaments to kind of chase," Scott said.
"Birdies aren't that easy to come by usually at majors, and if you're six back, five back, ten back after the first round, it's a hard three days in front of you to peg it back. You almost have to play flawless. So to get off to a good start is key." 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).