IT was a day when there was only one winner – the Augusta National course. In testing conditions, only a handful managed to move up the leaderboard. A few stood still, but the majority were back-tracking.
Three former winners – Fred Couples, Angel Cabrera and Bernhard Langer – used their experience to be among the few who emerged content with the day’s work. Couples, having opened with a 68 added a 71; Cabrera carded a 69 for 140 while Langer, displaying German efficiency at its best, crafted a second 71. Late in the day, however, the halfway lead was claimed by Australian Jason Day, who is certainly building a colourful history in this event.
Two years ago, he finished second to South African Charl Schwartzel. Twelve months ago, he walked off the course in the second round with an injured left ankle. The 25-year-old Queenslander has a spring back in his step again after a polished 66 that contained six birdies, the last of which came through a superbly-weighted curling putt at the short 16th.
Remarkably, no Australian has ever worn a Green Jacket. With Marc Leishman alongside Couples and Adam Scott also in the top ten, perhaps this is going to be the year. Breathing down the neck of the leader, though, alongside Cabrera are American duo Jim Furyk (71) and Brandt Snedeker (70) while a big group behind them includes Tiger Woods (71) and English trio Lee Westwood (71), Justin Rose (71) and David Lynn (73).
Out in three-under 33, four-time winner Woods shared the lead with four holes to play before he stumbled at the 15th. In trees off the tee, the world No 1 could only chip out. His third was headed for the green, but hit the flag and ended up in the water. “I was pretty pissed about that as I thought it was a good shot,” he said afterwards. A spectacular effort from the drop zone limited the damage to a bogey-6 but he also dropped a shot at the last for a 71 lose valuable ground in his bid to land a first major in just under five years.
It’s 22 years since Couples claimed victory here but the 53-year-old lead at halfway 12 months ago and now, at the age of 53, is in contention once again. “The course is winning today,” declared the man who slipped to a tie for 12th at the finish last year.
A few months after that effort, the American won the Seniors’ Open Championship at Turnberry. He plays most of his golf these days on the over-50s circuit but, at this place anyway, he can still mix it with the young bucks. “I did some good things out there but also had a couple of little hiccups,” said the 53-year-old. The latter included a double-bogey 6 at the seventh, which he “butchered”. The initial damage was caused by overhitting tge green.
A “huge two-putt” for a birdie at the next was just what the doctor ordered. “That was a relief after what had happened at the previous hole and, from then on, I played really well,” he revealed.
Is he still capable of producing four good rounds on this course to bridge a 22-year gap to claim a second Green Jacket, Couples added: “It didn’t happen last year. I was four-over pretty early on Saturday, which was a real bummer.”
Cabrera, ten years younger than Couples, is another player who seems to thrive at this place. Seventh two years after his triumph, the burly Argentinean made a significant thrust up the leaderboard with a blistering burst of five birdies in the final six holes to come home in 31.
He admitted a mid-morning rain shower that soon cleared to be replaced by glorious afternoon sunshine had played its part. “There were some tough pins out there, but the rain helped as I was able go for them,” he said.
Leishman and Spaniard Sergio Garcia, the joint-overnight leaders after they’d taken route 66 on Thursday, suffered constrating fortunes second time out.
In only his second appearance in the event - he missed the cut three years ago - Leishman recovered from a shaky start, dropping two shots in the first six holes, to card a 73 to sit alongside Couples.
For Garcia, however, it was a bit of a struggle. He failed to register a single birdie and slipped to a 76 to drop back to level-par.
It was a more satisfying day for world No 2 Rory McIlroy. After dropping two shots early on, the two-time major winner did little wrong thereafter. The highlight of a battling 70, which moved him to two-under, was an eagle-3 at the eighth.
“I had 275 to the pin,” he said of a 5-wood second shot to three. “It pitched somewhere in the middle of the green and ran up there. It was nice to get up there and see that ball pretty close to the hole.
“I didn’t play my best for the first few holes, but I made a lot of good putts for pars and the eighth hole really got me going, really kickstarted me.
“Then I started to hit some really good quality shots. Anything under par today was going to be a good score and I stayed patient out there when I needed to and it was a good day.”
Also tucked in nicely behind the leaders is Langer. “I’m pretty happy the way I played,” said the 1993 champion. “I left a few putts short which is disappointing, but I didn’t do it on purpose.
“I have a different attitude this year, I’m trying to win, trying to be on the leaderboard, and not just trying to scrape in and make the cut. So far, so good.”
He reckons this place is like a “second home” to Couples and, with two over 50s up near the top of the leaderboard, the German believes a ‘Golden Oldie’ can come out on top this weekend. “I think it’s possible,” he insisted. “I always thought that Freddie, with his length, can win it, because he hits it a good 30 yards by me, which helps a great deal on some of these holes.
“For me to win, everything has to go my way. I’ve got to start making some putts most of all. So I’ll be working on that.”
Defending champion Bubba Watson (73) just scraped into the final two rounds, but the race is over for Louis Oosthuizen, the runner-up 12 months ago, as well two recent US Open champions, Graeme McDowell and Webb Simpson.