Ballesteros would be looking down with one of his huge warm smiles if Garcia in particular was the man having a green jacket slipped over his shoulders. He’s had 73 attempts so far at winning a major and is still empty-handed. Only Lee Westwood, with 75, has knocked at the door more in those events without seeing it swing open.
On another testing day in a blustery wind at Augusta National, Garcia, who had opened with a flawless 71, got off to a flying start with three birdies – the first time he had achieved that feat here. Still three-under for the day at the turn, the 37-year-old had a bit of a wobble in Amen Corner, dropping shots at the tenth and 13th holes.
Birdies at the 15th and 17th, where a “hard 52-degree wedge” was despatched close to the hole, repaired that damage. He missed a great opportunity to finish with another gain only to see a three-foot putt bobble off to the right. He wasn’t too bothered about that, though. A 69, which matched the best effort among the morning starters, put him in a share of the clubhouse lead with Charley Hoffman. It had been a great two days’ work by Garcia. He is determined not to get ahead himself, even though he is well aware of this particular Sunday being significant.
“I probably don’t want to think about it as it will be sensitive,” he replied to being asked if Ballesteros, a two-time winner here, would be on his mind if he is still in contention entering the back nine in the final round. “There are a lot of holes that I have to play the right way. I will hopefully have that problem – it would be a nice problem to have. We’ll see what happens.”
This is Garcia’s 20th appearance in this event. He tied for eighth in 2002 before matching that finish in 2013. In truth, of the majors, it is the one that many people have felt he has always been least likely to win. Even after opening with 66 four years ago to lead, the cynics were quick to shoot down his chances.
Only time will tell if Garcia can prove them wrong but one thing for sure is that he has never been happier in life. He is due to get married later this year and that is helping put a smile on his face off the course. On it, he showed his game was in good shape when winning the Omega Dubai Desert Classic in February.
He talked after that success about how much he was looking forward to the majors this season. He can be encouraged that last year’s winner in Dubai, Danny Willett, went on to become Masters champion.
“You’ve really got to make peace with it a little bit,” he said of this course. “It is very challenging, especially in the wind, and I’m thrilled the way I have played the first two days.” On that missed short putt at the last, he added: “We misread it a little bit. It goes sideways, but I’m not complaining about that as I made a lot of great putts. You have got to miss some.”
Hoffman, who had started the day with a four-shot lead following his brilliant 65 on Thursday, had stretched that advantage to five at one point. He then came back to the field after dropping five shots in six holes around the turn. The 40-year-old showed he is made of stern stuff, though, by steadying the ship as he covered the last seven holes in one-under. He signed for a 75. That may have been ten shots more than his opening effort. Collectively, though, it was a praiseworthy opening 36 holes by the Californian. He was sitting second at the same stage two years ago before finishing fourth behind Jordan Spieth. Hoffman is delighted to be back in the hunt here.
“I’ve contended in a couple majors and obviously being in position going into Saturday here at the Masters is going to be special,” he said. “I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself, but I’d be lying to say it’s not a great feeling and a great spot to be.” On his round, he said: “I got off to a great start but just wasn’t in position to attack this golf course like I was yesterday. I was happy with the way I finished and I have given myself a chance going into the weekend.”
On his first appearance, another American, William McGirt, backed up his opening 69 with a 73 to sit two shots behind Garcia and Hoffman. “It’s pretty cool to get to play the weekend in your first Masters,” said McGirt, a 37-year-old with both Scottish and Irish ancestry. “To be in a position to be able to make a run on the weekend makes it even more special. It sounds awesome.”
Also in a position to make a run over the final 36 holes are Rahm and Rory McIlroy. Rahm, who is also trying to become the first debutant to win here since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, looks as though he isn’t scared of anything. After rounds of 73 and 70, he is on one-under. “I’m extremely excited,” said the 22-year-old of his lofty position, having already won on the PGA Tour this season and made his presence felt in two World Golf Championships. “I’m achieving goals at a really fast pace and want to keep it going,” he added.
McIlroy, who, of course, is chasing a career Grand Slam, had just birdied the 17th to get himself to level-par for the tournament when his approach at the last hit the flag and ended up off the green. He then missed a short putt to salvage par, signing for a 73. The world No 2 is ready to make his move over the weekend.“I’m close enough,” insisted the four-time major winner. “I’m a little disappointed with what happened at the last there, but these things happen and, if I can get off to a fast start tomorrow, a couple under through three, I’ll be right there. I feel like I’m playing well enough and I’m in a good frame of mind where I can go out there and attack and make some birdies.”