It's strange that one word which applies to Tom Watson as much as any is seldom used.


Because he looks like Huck Finn, not Mark Twain's other Mississippi character, the nefarious Duke, few see Watson's true competitive soul.

The Augusta National hates the faint of heart. That's why the Masters loves Watson. This stately, genteel joint pretends to reward the diligent good boys who never rattle the china, but it gives its green coats to the guys who gamble from the gut in the clutch.

Well, it's too late to get a bet down on Watson now. After a second-round 71, he's in a three-way tie for the midpoint lead with Craig Stadler (67) and Payne Stewart (71) at four-under-par 140, and the price on Watson already would be too short. It also would be stupid to bet against him on the course he may play better than any in the world.

Put this up-for-grabs Masters off the board until further notice.

Sure, Craig Stadler is a daring Walrus and it takes spunk for Stewart to wear his pastel knickers. Yes, the man at 141 -- Gary Hallberg -- thinks his patron saint is Indiana Jones. Also, behind Gary Koch (142), there's a veritable gamblers hall of fame at 143 -- Seve Ballesteros, Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd. Those three guys take their ice water intravenously.

Nonetheless, the best hope for a weekend horse race may be in Watson's own hellbent lack of caution. Watson, who has won here twice and been runner-up three times in the last eight years, only knows one way to play -- with his hand reaching toward his caddie for his driver and his eyes on the flag.

That wonderful gall cost him a two-shot lead this evening. Maybe more.

When Watson came to the 16th tee late today, he was six under par and ready to run the table. On Thursday, he'd scorched the back nine in 31 -- his best sprint for home ever as he went birdie-par-eagle-birdie-birdie starting at the 11th. Some players say they try to "par in"; Watson tries to "birdie in." He thought he might do it again.

This day at the 12th, he'd gone flag-huntin' to a tight pin that already had drowned Floyd and Tom Kite (79) twice; the result, a birdie from two paces. At 13, he cut off so much corner he had a tidy six-iron left on the 465-yard par 5; he left a 10-yard eagle putt hanging on the lip.

At 15, he had a bad lie, swirling wind and a blind 221-yard shot over water to reach the par 5 in two. Watson pulled out a three-iron, smoked the ball toward the tall pines and calmly asked his caddie when he reached the fairway, "Green or water?"

Told "green," Watson gave a tiny grin and two-putted from 70 feet. This is how the man plays.

It's also how he comes to grief. Wednesday, Watson said, "The back right trap at the 16th is going to produce some gag shots. That's too much of a gamble. If I'm in that bunker this week, I've hit a terrible shot."

But when Watson is hot-an'-runnin', he can't take his foot off the metal any more than any good-ol'-boy hereabouts. Thomas Sturges Watson doesn't look like he'd run on your door handle in the turns and love it, but he does.

At 16, Watson gambled, found that awful back trap and took bogey. At 17, where others use three-woods, he smote his erratic driver, had to explode from a fairway trap, "almost holed out a 50-yard wedge shot," then missed one of those short knee-knocker par putts that he usually slams in the back of the cup before the grain of the green has a chance to deflect the ball.

A lot of others backed up bringing it to the house, but Watson made his two bogeys the brave way.

Many met frustration without ever taking their shot at glory. For example, Hallberg had it six under through the sixth hole, but his putter suddenly got a severe case of the "oops, that's three feet short again." Five bogeys followed.

Those who started far behind this morning and played mad rather than scared did best, but Fuzzy Zoeller and Kite missed the cut.

Nervous Curtis Strange, who tiptoed to an 80 Thursday, turned in a 65 this morning before most civilized folks had finished their croissants. Strange came to the 15th eight under par and was looking down the barrel of history; a birdie on the easy 15th, plus three pars, and he'd be sole owner of the record on the world's home course. Splash, bogey, goodbye record.

Sandy Lyle also had 65 before the afternoon winds kicked up. He and Bruce Lietzke are in the five-way pileup at 143 as 10 players are under par for 36 holes.

The biggest come-from-behind ground gainer in this second round was Stadler, who went through the Amen Corner most irreverently, birdieing the 11th, 12th and 13th.

Stadler finished with eight birdies, including one at the 18th, and no doubt was pretty surprised when he watched the evening news and found out he was coleader at the Masters. When he left the course, Stadler was barely even in a good mood, grumbling about his putting. The 1982 Masters champ assumed several players would tear up the back nine and finish ahead of him.

"If you play well long enough, you're gonna win," said Stadler, this season's bridesmaid with three second-place finishes. "The key to my round was the 13th when I got lucky and bounced my drive off a fan's head and back into the fairway. I guess the guy was pointed in the right direction."

Stewart kept his courage intact, rebounding from three early bogeys with birdies at the 12th and 13th, plus five closing pars.

"Everybody seems to back off once they get to the lead here," said Stewart, who has never before been within binocular distance of the lead in a major. "There are so many dicey shots that everybody thinks they have to play cautiously . . . though I don't think Tom Watson ever does."

Five men who have won major titles are on the 10-man leader board. Also, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Calvin Peete, David Graham, Greg Norman and Lanny Wadkins are all at 145. Yet Watson's name dominates conversation here, as Palmer's and Nicklaus' once did, the instant it reaches the lead.

Before this Masters, Watson was asked of his chances.

"What kinda odds?" asked Watson, who loves the British tradition of legal gambling on golf and loves to bet there. Told Las Vegas bookies had him the favorite at 6 to 1, Watson said, "I wouldn't bet on anybody at that price. I'd give Tom Watson a fair chance. Maybe 10-1 or 12-1. I like those odds."

Then Watson told a story.

Every year when he goes to the British Open, where he's a five-time champion and resident deity, he spots a familiar long-haired Scot named Richie who loves to bet heavily on him.

"What odds you got?" asks Watson. "5 to 1" or "6 to 1," the man answers.

"You're crazy to keep on betting on me at those odds," wails Watson.

"Yea, mon, you're right," says the gambler. "But I keep on winnin'."