Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champ, called his 5-under second round Friday in Augusta “incredible” — and not many would disagree. Couples, who was even after the first round, is now tied for the lead with Jason Dufner.
AUGUSTA — This isn’t any sort of illusion for Fred Couples.
He knows he’s 52. He knows his last PGA Tour win came in 2003. He knows his limitations — and his strengths.
“I’m certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, but I do know this course pretty well,” Couples said.
Right now, he’s better than both.
The 1992 Masters champion shot a Friday-best 5-under 67 to take a share of the 2012 Masters lead heading into the weekend. He’s tied with Jason Dufner, who shot 2-under Friday, despite a disappointing bogey on 18.
Disappointment, meanwhile, was the theme of Tiger Woods’ day as he moved closer to the cut line of 5-over than the lead.
Struggling with his swing for the second straight round, Woods opened with two birdies on the first three holes but gave that all back and more. He shot 3-over 75 and is now at 3 over for the tournament.
Last year, he was seven back but came back to briefly grab the lead on Sunday before finishing fourth.
“One of the neat things about this tournament is the 10-shot rule,” Woods said, referring to the rule that brings all players within 10 of the lead back for the weekend. “Anyone can win the golf tournament who makes the cut. Guys have won this from five, six down going into the back nine. I just need to be solid, cut that deficit down and get off to a quick start like I did last year on Sunday.”
If Woods makes it into the running Sunday, he’ll likely see Couples there.
“It was a great day,” Couples said. “I’ve said it for 28 years, this is my favorite golf tournament in the world.”
Days like Friday explain why.
Couples reeled off seven birdies, running in putts of more than 20 feet three times. He hit 13 of 18 greens in regulation and never three-putted.
“I felt like I hit the ball well (Thursday),” said Couples, who was even through the first round. “That I went out there and hit it solid (Friday), that was really the game plan of not trying to do a whole lot of crazy things. Just hit the ball solid, and I did and made a few putts, and ended up shooting a lot lower than I thought.
“Five-under was an incredible round.”
Just as unlikely, Dufner is right there with him — and he didn’t waste any time giving himself another shot in a major.
When last seen on a big stage, Dufner lost a five-shot lead with four holes to play and wound up losing the PGA Championship in a playoff to Keegan Bradley. Nearly eight months later, Dufner walked off the 18th green Friday at the Masters and saw his name atop the leaderboard.
Other than his bogey on the final hole — which would’ve put him at 6-under and in sole possession of the lead — Dufner was happy with his steady play and has put what happened at the PGA behind him.
“I had some really nice rounds at the PGA,” Dufner said. “Didn’t quite work out, but carried over into this year. It gave me confidence that I can compete and play at a high level out here and do really nice things.”
Dufner has done a lot of nice things over the last few years, which explains why he is No. 31 in the world ranking. He just hasn’t done anything to distinguish himself — like winning.
The Masters is his 162nd start on the PGA Tour, and the 35-year-old Auburn alum and Alabama native remains the only player in the Top 50 who has never won on any recognized tour around the world.
Dufner is not likely to get much recognition at Augusta National, except for the Southern fans crying out “War Eagle” to salute his days at Auburn.
And that’s just fine by him.
“I know the situation, and I’m playing a major, I’m playing at Augusta in the Masters,” Dufner said. “As a player, I know everything that’s going on. At times, I know that I am leading or behind or whatever it might be in that situation. I’m just trying to have a nice round of golf, play well, commit to my shots and let the rest take care of itself.”
Only three players’ rounds came within a shot of Couples’ 5-under, and two of them, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson, played their way into contention heading into the weekend.
Mickelson made six birdies during a round of 4-under 68 to pull to 2-under for the tournament after a rough start Thursday.
Garcia is part of a crowded group of five players one shot back that includes Day 1 leader Lee Westwood, who was 1-over Friday, Louis Oosthuizen, former Georgia golfer Bubba Watson and reigning U.S. Open champ Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy shot 3-under Friday, an impressive round that was overshadowed by his playing partner Couples.
“He always seems to play well here whenever he comes back,” McIlroy said of Couples. “I feel like he still has the length to play this golf course.”
Coming off last year’s tournament, during which he blew a Sunday lead, McIlroy opened Thursday with a double-bogey on No. 1, but rebounded to shoot 1-under, with birdies on No. 17 and 18. He carried that confidence into Friday.
“I think the whole round (Thursday) was important to me,” McIlroy said.
On Friday, the most important round came from Mickelson.
Lefty entered Friday’s round at 2-over after a dismal first day. But he picked up two early birdies on the front nine, going out at 1-under and then took advantage of the improved weather to play the back nine 3-under with birdies on both par 5s and the exclamation birdie on 18 to climb within three strokes of the lead.
“I was hoping for one or two more under, but that birdie on 18 felt terrific to finish that way,” Mickelson said. “And to be only 3 back now heading into the weekend feels great, too. Especially after the first 10 holes (Thursday).”
Day 1 leader Westwood held his lead for nearly all of Friday’s round, going out with 10 straight pars. Two birdies on the back nine dropped him to 6-under, but a double-bogey on 18 put the Englishman out of the lead for the first time as he ended one stroke back of Dufner and Couples at 4-under.
“I’m not going to be too far off the lead,” Westwood said. “That’s a position you want to be in.”
Former Georgia Tech golfer Matt Kuchar shot 2-under Friday, putting him two back of the lead. In total, 16 golfers are within three strokes of the top, including Vijay Singh, Ben Crane, Charles Howell III and Aaron Baddeley.
But the day belonged to Couples, 20 years after he last won at Augusta. He knows he’s older, but age hasn’t sapped his confidence one bit.
“Can I win?” Couples asked aloud. “I believe I can, yes.”
Information from The Associated Press was used in this report