AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — All signs pointed to this being a Masters for the ages.
This wasn't what anyone had in mind — 52–year–old Fred Couples, silver hair and still cool as ever, drawing the loudest cheers Friday on his way to becoming the oldest player atop the leaderboard going into the weekend at Augusta (News - Alert) National.
"Very shocking, and it was a great day," Couples said after a 5–under 67, which gave him a share of the lead with Jason Dufner. "There was a lot going on there, and for me to be a part of it, it's really amazing."
The buzz going into the Masters was built around all the best players on top of their games, and that element was very much in place. Rory McIlroy charged up the leaderboard. Lee Westwood is right there. So is Sergio Garcia and even Phil Mickelson.
Missing from the mix — another surprise — was club–kicking Tiger Woods.
Just two weeks after Woods won Bay Hill by five shots and became an instant favorite for a fifth green jacket, he couldn't make a putt and then hit only two greens on the back nine. He kept dropping the club out of his hands in disgust, and it reached a boiling point on the par–3 16th when he turned and kicked his 9–iron some 15 yards.
Woods didn't make a birdie after the third hole and shot 75, his highest score at Augusta since 2004.
"I can do this," Woods said. "I've just got to be patient."
The eight–shot deficit was not nearly as daunting as the 39 players ahead of him — especially McIlroy, who was only one shot back.
The 22–year–old U.S. Open champion started this tournament with a double bogey and has been trending upward ever since. McIlroy made two early birdies and was on his way. He drove the ball with authority, allowing him to take on the flags. With a tough par save on the 18th, he shot a 69.
"I wouldn't say I'm in a position to win yet, but we'll see what happens tomorrow," McIlroy said. "I feel like I've played solid golf the last two days — could have been a couple shots better, like probably everyone in the field is thinking. But I'm in a nice position, and I definitely would have taken it after the start yesterday."
Couples won the Masters in 1992 — McIlroy was not quite 3 back then — for his only green jacket, though he seems to give himself a chance whenever he shows up at Augusta. His back has been ailing him for close to two decades. It was so chilly when he teed off Friday that he had every reason to believe he was at the British Open.
But he loves this course more than any other. He knows his way around. He knows how to score. No one — not even Jack Nicklaus — has a lower scoring average at the Masters of those who have played at least 100 rounds.
"Can I win?" Couples said, repeating the question. "I believe I can. Yes."
Couples and Dufner, whose bogey from the bunker on the 18th hole gave him a 70, were at 5–under 139.
Dufner overcame a double bogey on the par–3 fourth hole with birdies on two other par 3s. It's the second straight major where he has been tied for the lead going into the weekend, and he can only hope the outcome is a little different from the PGA Championship last August. Dufner had a five–shot lead with four holes to play and wound up losing in a playoff to Keegan Bradley.
"Didn't quite work out, but carried over into this year," said Dufner, playing the Masters for only the second time. "It gave me confidence that I can compete and play at a high level out here and do really nice things."
Cold, cloudy conditions gave way to pleasant sunshine about the time Couples revved up the gallery with three straight birdies to close out the front nine. He knocked down a pitching wedge from 105 yards to tap–in range, then rolled in a 35–foot putt up the hill on the ninth. The loudest cheer came on the par–3 16th, when his 18–foot birdie putt eased down a slope and disappeared.
"A great roar," Couples said.
As much as he believes he can win, reality sets in when Couples looks down the list of players behind him — a lot of them.
Westwood got nothing out of another good day with his iron, and a three–putt from short range on the 18th gave him a double bogey and cost him the lead. He had to settle for a 73, yet had few complaints just one shot behind.
"It you get out of position slightly on this golf course, it can punish you," Westwood said. "And even if you don't get out of position, it can punish you. But I'm right in there for the weekend."
The Masters is the one major where Garcia has struggled, and it didn't look good for him when he developed an infection in the nail of his middle finger on the right hand. Maybe that was enough to take his mind off the course. He made six birdies in his round of 68.
"I don't know if I'm ready to win," Garcia said. "I'm just going to give it my best try. Hopefully, that will be good."
Also at 4–under 140 were Bubba Watson, who had a 71, and former British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen, who rallied from a miserable start with three birdies late in his round to salvage a 72. The group two shots behind included another British Open champ, Paul Lawrie (72), Matt Kuchar (70) and Miguel Angel Jimenez, the 48–year–old from Spain who played with Woods the first two rounds.
"The two old guys could be there on Sunday, no?" he said.
Mickelson was on the verge of shooting himself out of the tournament until his short game magic allowed him to salvage a 74. He came back strong for a 68, and was just three shots out of the lead.
And yes, he knew exactly where he stood.
"Are you kidding me? After yesterday's round, I love it," Mickelson said. "To be only three back with 36 to go, there's a lot of time left and there's a lot of birdies out there and I get to slide off before the leaders. If I make a move, they get to see those numbers being posted ahead of them, and that's not always easy."
Woods, a four–time champion, didn't look like he enjoyed anything. It was startling to see him struggle, especially just two weeks after he appeared back to normal when he won at Bay Hill.
Woods didn't birdie any of the par 5s — only the third time that has happened in 68 rounds at the Masters. He tried a wild hook around the trees on the par–5 13th and paid for a risky shot. The ball plugged in a steep bank, and he had no choice but to take his third penalty shot of the tournament. Then, from the middle of the 15th fairway, his 4–iron sailed into the gallery, leading to another burst of swearing and another par.
"I didn't quite have it today with my swing," he said.
Couples remains the favorite, though. He is one of the most popular figures at Augusta, if not all of golf. Even as he was making his move up the leaderboard, he looked as if nothing could bother him. He twists his back and stretches out his arms to stay nimble; no one else on the course looks so relaxed.
"He's just cool," McIlroy said. "I hope I'm that cool when I'm 52."