AUGUSTA, Ga. — Leads were lost, shots bounced off flagsticks back into ponds, and two unexpected developments — one controversial, the other coming amid the lengthy shadows of the fading early evening light — nearly caused major heartache for golf’s new boy wonder.
Yes, the 77th Masters offered a little bit of everything in Friday’s second round.
When the final scorecard was signed, Jason Day found himself in possession of a one-shot lead — his first after any round of any major championship — shooting a 4-under-par 68 at Augusta National Golf Club on the strength of a late birdie, which broke a tie he shared at 5 under with Fred Couples (71), Marc Leishman (73), and at one time, Tiger Woods (71).
But Day couldn’t make two late birdies, which would have shifted the cut line and bumped 14-year-old Chinese amateur Tianlang Guan, who was given an exceptionally rare one-stroke penalty for slow play while he was on the 17th hole.
Because Day missed a 14-foot birdie putt on No. 17, then failed to make birdie at the 18th after driving into a fairway bunker, Guan made the cut, extending a week that’s already been historic. He’s the youngest participant ever in the Masters, and now is the youngest to make a 36-hole cut in a PGA Tour event.
Day’s par-par finish might also have spared tournament officials from a vitriolic insurrection by those who felt that the teenager had been unfairly targeted. After all, Day’s group needed 5 hours, 45 minutes to complete 18 holes, yet Guan was deemed to be the only player in violation of the slow-play policy.
In two previous Masters appearances, Day has made headlines: He tied for second as a first-timer in 2011, then withdrew midway through the second round last year with an ankle injury. Now he’ll try to become the first Australian to win the Masters, and will be paired with perennial crowd favorite Couples in the final group of the third round.
“It just feels like every shot is the biggest shot you’ve ever hit in your life out there. It’s really, really difficult,” Day said. “I’ve just got to go out there and really commit to the game plan tomorrow. I know there’s going to be a lot of pressure.”
Day had the low round of the day, and birdied some of Augusta National’s hardest par-4 holes to do it. He followed a bogey on No. 4 with birdies at the 455-yard fifth and 450-yard seventh. Two more birdies came on Nos. 10 (495 yards) and 11 (505). Still two more followed — at the par-5 13th and par-3 16th — after his second bogey, at No. 12, when his tee shot found Rae’s Creek. He actually made a good bogey there after the water ball, and used the momentum to seize the lead over the closing holes.
“I want to peak at this event, because it’s just the best tournament in the world and I really enjoy it,” Day said. “Not many people get to say that they have had the lead a couple of times at the Masters. I’m just really looking forward to the challenge over the weekend.”
Couples has had the lead plenty of times at the Masters, it seems, and at 53 held it for a time on Friday before Day pulled ahead. The 1992 Masters champion had an up-and-down round — five birdies, two bogeys, and a double at No. 7 — but finds himself on Saturday in the same position as a year ago: In the final group of the day. Last year, paired with another Jason (Dufner), Couples struggled to a third-round 75, and eventually tied for 12th.
“Am I good enough to play four good rounds in a row on a course like this?” said Couples, who birdied No. 18. “It didn’t happen last year. I was 4 over pretty fast on Saturday, which was a real bummer.”
A few others were in a similarly bad mood on Friday. Paired with Couples, Dustin Johnson reached 7 under par and built a two-shot lead while playing the 14th hole. But he bogeyed No. 14, then made a double at the par-5 15th, the start of a sloppy slide that saw him drop six shots over the final five holes. In about an hour, Johnson went from leading to a tie for 20th.
Woods was also in the lead while playing No. 15, at least had a share of it, until his approach shot hit the flagstick on the fly, then caromed toward him, rolled down the slope, and trickled into the water. The unluckiest of breaks, which led to a bogey, when a close-range birdie chance seemed guaranteed in mid-air.
“I knew I started the ball on the flag. My ball striking was so good today. Even my misses were on top of flags,” Woods said. “There’s a long way to go. We’ve got 36 holes and this is a tricky test.”
Leishman held his own after two early bogeys, and will be paired in the third round with Angel Cabrera, the 2009 Masters champion who shot 31 on the back nine Friday.
Cabrera carded 69 and is tied with Brandt Snedeker (70) and Jim Furyk (71) in fourth, two shots behind Day. Adam Scott (72), Dufner (69), and Lee Westwood (71) are included in the group at 3 under.
They’re all chasing Day, who admits carrying a patriotic burden into the weekend.
“Obviously there’s a lot of pressure on my shoulders, being from Australia and no Australian has ever won the event,” Day said. “I’ve just got to get that out of my mind and plug away.”