There is something about Fred Couples and Augusta National. A marriage made in heaven perhaps? A beautiful romance, no doubt. The 52-year-old American won here 20 years ago. He has come close a few times since and he might come close again in 2012.
The weekend is yet to unfold and the weekend is when the favourites, the likes of Rory McIlroy and Lee Westwood, will bring their absolute best. But if the Northern Irishman, the Englishman or anyone else wants to win the Green Jacket he will have to gets past Couples.
In cold and blustery conditions more akin to Southend in March than the American South, the laid-back Californian strolled around in his casual way, stopping occasionally to hit a booming drive, an arrow-like approach or a confident putt. He had seven birdies, a couple of bogeys and nine pars. It all added up to a five-under-par 67, leaving him in a tie for the lead alongside his compatriot Jason Dufner.
Can he keep this up? Couples certainly thinks he can. “This is my favourite golf tournament in the world and today was just another day when I felt if I hit the ball solid and not do any crazy things, then I had a chance,” he said afterwards. “Even so 67 is a shocking round. For me to be a part of this day really is a great thrill.”
At the very least he will carry the hopes and affections of the Augusta National galleries, to whom he has been a romantic hero for a couple of decades. His problem is that those piled up behind him on the leaderboard are more ambitious and romantic. McIlroy and Westwood and Sergio García, all of whom were within one shot of the leader, will fancy their chances. Phil Mickelson is another whose presence will loom in Couples’ overnight dreams.
The American left-hander has played erratically over the first two days, visiting parts of the property where only topographers dare to tread. But when it mattered he answered the call, steeling his game and his mind for the full 18 holes and a round of 68, four under par. He will begin the third round three shots adrift of the leaders. He likes his chances.
Tiger Woods was more lukewarm about his and who would blame him after a second-round 75 which was almost shocking in its sloppiness. Professional golfers seldom hit shanks. Woods hit two in the space of two holes, at the 15th and 16th. Garnish those with a broad selection of poor drives, bad putts and what a tennis buff would call “racket abuse” and you have a meal guaranteed to bring indigestion.
The former world No1 made the cut but essentially ended his chances of winning his first major since the summer of 2008. Woods arrived here as the tournament favourite. Barring a miracle over the weekend, he will depart a disappointed man.
A legion of his fans around the world will weep tears over that. The rest of the field will not. A neutered Tiger increases everyone else’s chances – a simple calculus that will hearten a player such as Westwood.
The Englishman has come close here over the years but never won. He led after the opening day and played well again on Friday. Yet for all the excellence of his play he did not capitalise on the chances he was creating. Time and again he found the greens in regulation, giving himself an opportunity to extend his advantage only to be undone on the frailties of his short game. Missed putts are common currency on greens as fast and as complex as Augusta National’s but Westwood missed far more than his share. Such setbacks prey on the mind, especially of those who hit the ball as well and as accurately as he does. It breeds the suspicion that misfortune might be round the corner.
Sometimes calamity never arrives. Sometimes it does. Alas for Westwood it came on the brutish 18th. He negotiated the drive well enough but then hooked his approach shot left of the green. From there he took another four shots to get his ball in the hole – a double-bogey six which saw him signing for a one-over-par round of 73.
That dropped him from outright leadership into a tie for third place on four under for the tournament. This was hardly devastating in the greater scheme of things – it certainly did not end his chances of winning the Green Jacket – but it hurt, even if Westwood insisted it did not.
“I played well today and have put myself right in contention for the weekend, which is where you want to be,” he said afterwards. “I got myself in a lot of good positions on the greens and hit a lot of good putts which mysteriously didn’t go in. But overall I’m happy.”
Joining Westwood was McIlroy, whose opening-round 71 was perhaps the best he could have scored given the erratic quality of his play on Thursday. He came back in far better fettle after ironing out a little technical glitch with his swing and immediately made his move.
Three birdies on the front nine established real momentum and a position of intent which he maintained over the back nine. He signed for a three-under 69 – not brilliant, but more than good enough. “I am happy with where I am going into the weekend,” he said.
You can bet your life he is.