Midway through the 76th Masters, it’s a tossup which is stranger: Who’s in contention near the top of the leader board, or who’s not.
You might remember Fred Couples, who won this first major of the year — 20 years ago. These days, the famously laid-back, balky-backed “Mr. Cool” is a regular contender — on the Champions Tour. He’s also 52 which, were he to win Sunday, would make him six years older than Jack Nicklaus when the “Olden Bear” won in 1986.
You might not remember Jason Dufner, who, when last seen in a major championship, was losing a three-hole playoff to Keegan Bradley in last year’s PGA Championship — this, after Bradley erased a five-shot deficit with three holes to play in regulation. Dufner, who at 35 was still in high school when Couples won here in 1992, owns two career victories — on the Nationwide Tour.
Yet late Friday, that was the unlikely duo sharing the second-round lead at Augusta National, both at 5-under 139. Couples, who seems to have found a fountain of youth somewhere near Rae’s Creek, shot the day’s best round, a 5-under 67, highlighted by a front-nine 33 that resembled a roller-coaster: bogey-par-birdie-birdie-par-bogey-birdie-birdie-birdie.
Couples in contention? Why not, he asked.
“I’m certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson,” he said, referencing two of the pre-tournament favorites, “but I do know this course pretty well. I’ve had a lot of success here.”
Duffner, meanwhile, added a 2-under 70 to his opening 69. A late charge featured birdies at 13, 14 and 16, which put him in first at 6-under before a bogey at the 18th, a hole that took bites out of many in the field.
The day’s other surprises? That would be the showings by the pre-tournament favorite: supposedly resurgent Tiger Woods, a four-time Masters champ.
The darling of legal English bookies since his win two weeks ago snapped a 30-month winless streak, Woods followed Thursday’s even-par 72 with a 75. He started with birdies on two of his first three holes but reeled off five bogeys (and no birdies) in his final 13 holes.
A five-some of younger (than Couples) and more familiar (than Dufner) names sat a shot back of the co-leaders at 4-under. They were 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen (68-72), world No. 3 and first-round leader Lee Westwood (67-73), Spanish wunderkind Sergio Garcia (72-68), 2010 PGA runner-up Bubba Watson (69-71) — and McIlroy (71-69).
Two shots further back is Mickelson, who stumbled out of the gate Thursday with a 2-over 74, rebounded nicely with a 4-under 68. “I played well and shot something in the 60s that got me back in the tournament,” Mickelson said. “To be only three (shots) back heading into the weekend feels great — especially after the first 10 holes (Thursday).”
Sixty-three players made the cut at 5-over, finishing within 10 shots of the leaders. Twenty-three players shot under par and another seven are at even par, setting up a free-for-all finish. Not that the co-leaders seemed concerned.
Couples often appears to operate on auto-pilot at Augusta National, so perhaps his performance shouldn’t be a surprise. Since qualifying for AARP membership in 2009, he’s finished sixth and tied for 15th. As easy-going as he looks, he says he feels the same way.
“I don’t feel too much stress,” Couples said. “Now, obviously there’s stress out there. (But) when you’re playing here, I’m not going to let too many things bother me.”
And then there’s his … well, Fred-ness. “He’s just cool,” gushed Rory McIlroy, last year’s Masters leader through 63 of 72 holes and a favorite this week after winning last year’s U.S. Open. “I hope I’m that cool when I’m 52, or whatever he is.”
Dufner likewise credited his position to a low-key approach to Augusta National. “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 others,” he said. “You are trying to have the same mentality and confidence out there.
“I had some really nice rounds at PGA. (That) didn’t quite work out but (they) carried over, I think, into this year.”
And what about Woods? Eight shots out of first place, he’s tied for 33rd. The farthest back the four-time Masters winner has ever been after 36 holes and then won? In 2002, he was fourth.
More for you Tiger history buffs: The last time he started 3-over was in 2007. He also finished 3-over and tied for second — but that was a Masters played in brutal conditions, which Zach Johnson won at 1-over.
Still, a year ago, Woods made up seven shots on Sunday to catch the leader, only to stall on the back nine. “That’s one of the neat things about this tournament; anyone can win the tournament if they make the cut (within 10 shots of the lead),” Woods said.
“Guys have won this tournament from five and six (shots) back going into the back nine. I just need to cut that down a little bit (today), play a good solid round and cut that deficit down and get off to a quick start again on Sunday, like I did last year.”
Unlikely? Perhaps. Then too, the notion of Couples and Dufner as co-leaders falls into the same category.