It’s a two-man show after 36 holes of the Masters Tournament – but not the two anyone expected.
Instead of Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy taking top billing, the leading men are 52-year-old former Masters champion Fred Couples and 35-year-old journeyman Jason Dufner.
McIlroy, the world’s No. 2-ranked player, is hardly playing a supporting role. He is in a large group one shot off the lead.
As for Woods, it looks as though this might be the seventh consecutive Masters without a victory for the four-time champion. Woods shot 75 and is eight shots off the lead.
“I didn’t quite have it today with my swing,” Woods said.
Couples, the 1992 Masters champion who said he feels “very young” when he gets to Augusta National Golf Club, had the day’s low round with 5-under-par 67.
Couples is now the only member of the 50-and-over set to be a 36-hole leader in the Masters.
“For me to be tied at this moment is a little shocking. It was incredible,” said Couples, who is coming off a victory in his last Champions Tour start on March 25.
Said McIlroy of Couples: “He always seems to play well here. I feel he still has the length to play this golf course. Freddie has a lot of experience here, and he still has the game to do well. It’s great to see him up there, and just adds a little more spice to the weekend.”
Dufner and Couples are 5-under 139, which is five shots higher than McIlroy’s 36-hole leading total of last year. The conditions were drier and less breezy last year, and mud balls weren’t the problem they have been this year.
The course is drying up, and with no rain in the forecast, the scores likely will get lower.
“I played a really good round of golf today, and I have to do that tomorrow, or they will just fly by me,” Couples said. “I mean, these guys are not going to come out and shoot even par.”
Five players are one shot behind the co-leaders, headed by the 22-year-old McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, who shot 69 on Friday.
The others one back are Spain’s Sergio Garcia (68), Bubba Watson (71), South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen (72) and England’s Lee Westwood (73).
After that, three players – Matt Kuchar, Scotland’s Paul Lawrie and Spain’s Miguel Angel Jimenez – are two shots back. Kuchar had 70, and Lawrie and Jimenez had 72s.
Phil Mickelson (68 on Friday) and Augusta native Charles Howell (70) are in a group of eight players three shots back.
The day started off with British Open-type weather and Europeans holding down five of the top nine spots on the leaderboard. It ended in warm weather with two Americans on top.
Although it is Couples’ 28th Masters, Dufner is playing in just his second. He has taken an immediate liking to Augusta National, though; he closed last year’s Masters with 69 and has followed that with another 69 on Thursday and 70 on Friday.
One would never know how well Dufner is playing from his stoic demeanor.
“There’s a lot more going on out there than appears,” said Dufner, who has never won on the PGA Tour. He lost the PGA Championship to Keegan Bradley last year in a playoff.
“I feel like I have the same emotions and same thought processes as a lot of guys, but I seem to not show it quite as well as some other players,” he said. “It’s just difficult. It’s a test to yourself. You are trying to have the same mentality and confidence out there.”
Dufner, a former Auburn University golfer, has missed just five fairways off the tee in two rounds and needed just 29 putts on Thursday and 26 on Friday. He had six birdies, a double bogey and two bogeys, including one on the 18th hole Friday.
Counting his rounds of 70-65-68-69 at the par-70 Atlanta Athletic Club in the PGA Championship last August, Dufner is 13-under for his past six rounds in major championships.
“I had some really nice rounds at PGA,” he said. “It didn’t quite work out but carried over, I think, into this year. It gave me confidence that I can compete and play at a high level out here and do really nice things at events.”
Garcia was tied for the lead with Couples and Dufner going to the 18th. After flying his second shot into the gallery on the left, he hit his bump-and-run shot too hard. It skirted across the green and he two-putted from there for bogey.
Westwood knows the feeling. He was in and out of the lead for most of the day until he made double bogey on the final hole.
“These things happen, and they can happen to anybody,” Westwood said of his closing double bogey. “I’m right in there for the weekend. I’m not far off the lead going into the weekend, which is right where I want to be.”
So is McIlroy, who is trying to atone for his meltdown in the final round of last year’s Masters.
From his play this year, McIlroy expects to be a factor on the second nine on Sunday. In five worldwide starts, he has been in the top 5 every time, with one win.
“I wouldn’t say I’m in a position to win yet, but we’ll see what happens tomorrow,” McIlroy said. “It will definitely be nice to feel like I’m in a good position going into Sunday.”