By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Twelve months after succumbing to the pressure of trying to retain his Masters title, Bubba Watson delivered a near-flawless display to soar up the leaderboard in Thursday's opening round at Augusta National.
The power-hitting American left-hander, who is renowned for his audacious brand of 'Bubba' golf, was the only player in the field of 97 to go bogey-free as he fired a three-under-par 69 on a firm, fast-running layout.
Adopting the strategy of not looking at any leaderboards out on the course in a bid to maintain a blinkered focus, Watson birdied the third, 13th and 15th to end a day of unbroken sunshine one stroke behind pacesetting American Bill Haas.
"It was really solid," Watson said of his blemish-free round. "You know, my whole goal, I'm not trying to look at leaderboards. I don't want to give my secret but I'm trying to just hit greens.
"Today I missed two greens. I missed one by six inches, missed one by three feet. I putted both of those, made pars. So I'm just trying to hit greens.
"If I can hit greens that means I've hit good tee shots and I hit good iron shots and I'm just trying to make par from there and throw in a birdie here and there. And that's what I did today."
Last year Watson opened with a 75 and closed with a 77 to finish joint 50th on his Masters defense, overwhelmed by the task of trying to retain his crown.
"It's pressure," he said of his 2013 effort. "You're playing Augusta National, one of the best golf courses in the world. The best golf course in the world.
"The emotions are different because I'm trying to get the green jacket again. I had it, there's so much you're doing when you're defending champ, and my mind can't handle it.
"But for me it was just overwhelming, the Champions Dinner, everybody still congratulating you, so I just never got the focus. I played really bad on Sunday last year."
This year Watson feels he has returned to Augusta National flying under the radar and he is eager to take advantage.
"I'm coming back with the take that I want the jacket again," said the 35-year-old who won his fifth PGA Tour title at the Northern Trust Open in February after shooting two 64s over the weekend.
"I'm coming back with a different mindset, full of energy. I haven't had any media this week because nobody cares about the guy a couple of years ago. So it's been good."
Watson, who clinched his maiden major title with a scintillating playoff victory over South African Louis Oosthuizen in the 2012 Masters, relished playing in sun-baked conditions on Thursday.
"The course was really good," he said. "There were two greens that I know of that were a little crusty, a little hard, and were getting firm. But the course is in great shape.
"This is probably the best I've seen it in a long time. And it seems to have suited me the last couple of years. The tee shots are pretty generous for me. I like to cut the ball and a lot of the holes go from right to left."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)