AUGUSTA, Ga. - The Masters might not begin until the back nine on Sunday, as the popular saying goes, but the 76th edition got a whole lot better Friday.
Credit a 52-year-old, a 32-year-old, and a 22-year-old for amping up the voltage at the year’s first major. Augusta National Golf Club witnessed cool, windy conditions at the start of the day, but a number of stars soon delivered some welcome heat.
Tiger Woods wasn’t among them, but at the top of the list was Fred Couples, who played in his first Masters in 1983, made the cut in his first 23 tries, and celebrates the 20-year anniversary of his only win here on April 12. Couples shot the low round Friday, a 5-under-par 67 that gave him a share of the 36-hole lead with Jason Dufner (70). A five-player group one shot behind offers plenty of firepower: Rory McIlroy (69), Sergio Garcia (68), Lee Westwood (73), Bubba Watson (71), and Louis Oosthuizen (72). Phil Mickelson, after a 68, lurks three back at 2 under.
There are 30 players at even par or better and separated by just five shots, but one stands out. Couples might be the most popular player at the Masters, even at 52. His hair is gray now, yet he’s challenged the expectations of advancing age by bringing a game that many think can win. He’s still long enough, and owns the necessary experience at Augusta National.
A victory would give Couples his own spot in history; the oldest major champion is Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA at 48. Jack Nicklaus was 46 in 1986, making him the oldest Masters champion.
“Can I win? I believe I can, yes,’’ Couples said. “I feel like I’m very young when I get here. A lot of tournaments you play and you drag a little bit. I think this is just - there’s so much going at this tournament.
“I think everyone gets so excited to come here. It’s the first major; it’s Augusta; the course is beautiful. That doesn’t mean I’m going to do well every single time, but I feel like I can get it around and figure out how to shoot a score on this course.’’
Couples has been blessed with good looks and a coolness that resonates with many golf fans, but cursed with a bad back. Friday morning’s damp, chilly weather wouldn’t have been his preference. Putting together such a solid round - seven birdies - surprised him, even though he came into the tournament fresh off a win on the Champions Tour.
“Very shocking. Ended up shooting a lot lower than I thought,’’ Couples said. “ was an incredible round, a very, very good round. I know Phil just birdied 18 for 4 under and Sergio is behind me and Rory . . . For me to be a part of it, it’s really amazing.’’
Couples responded to his second and final bogey of the day at No. 6 by making three birdies in a row, starting on the seventh. Back-to-back birdies on Nos. 15-16 got him to 5 under, and when Westwood made a double bogey on the 18th to fall to 4 under, Couples and Dufner - who lost in a playoff at the PGA Championship near Atlanta some eight months ago - were alone at the top. They stayed there, but not without some temporary company.
Garcia, the 32-year-old Spaniard seeking his first major, and McIlroy, the 22-year-old US Open winner from Northern Ireland who had one arm in the green jacket last year before a final-round 80, both got to 5 under late in their rounds. But Garcia bogeyed the 18th (which was the second-toughest hole - 4.39 - in the second round), and McIlroy dropped a shot on No. 17.
Mickelson started seven shots back, and reduced the deficit to three with four birdies over his final seven holes, including a birdie on No. 18 for the second straight day.
“I played well and shot something in the 60s that got me back in the tournament,’’ Mickelson said. “I was hoping for one or two more, but that birdie on 18 felt terrific to finish that way. And to be only three back heading into the weekend feels great, too.’’
While Mickelson moved one way, Woods moved the other, shooting a 3-over-par 75 that left him kicking (literally) and cursing and eight shots back, tied for 40th.
Some of the pretournament favorites - McIlroy, Mickelson - got back into the mix on Friday. Watson, Garcia, and Westwood weren’t mentioned nearly as much heading into the Masters, but provide a welcoming presence, all three looking to join the club of major champions.
Then there’s Couples. We’ll find out if he can emerge from a crowded leaderboard, with Saturday and Sunday calling for splendid weather. Of the 30 players within shouting distance, who can handle the pressure and produce the golf to match? Or will someone from even farther back fashion something special?
“I’m certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, but I do know this course pretty well,’’ Couples said. “I’ve had a lot of success here.’’