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Age is Just a Number: Couples Ties Dufner for Masters Lead through 36 Holes
"With all these geriatrics playing so well in majors, Woods may try until age 70 to pass Nicklaus's record. S.I.'s Gary Van Sickle in a conversation with Jay Flemma
Drinking deeply from the fountain of youth, 52-year-old Fred Couples turned the clock back 20 years with a sparkling 5-under 67 and seized a share of the Masters lead along with star-crossed journeyman pro Jason Dufner. Both players are 5-under for the tournament, one shot clear of a logjam of players including perennial bridesmaids Lee Westwood, Bubba Watson and Sergio Garcia, as well as recent major champions Rory McIlroy and Louis Oosthuizen.
Ten more players are within three shots of the lead after a day that started frigidly and saw few golfers break out as spectacularly as Couples did. Despite hitting only 13 greens in regulation, he carded seven birdies, including three in a row at Nos. 7, 8 and 9, and then back-to-back birdies at 15 and 16.
"I feel like I'm very young when I get here. I've said it for 28 years - this is my favorite golf tournament in the world . . . Can I win? I believe I can, yes," explained Couples. "I'm getting up there [age-wise], and I'm certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, but I do know this course pretty well and I've had a lot of success here."
Couples added that perhaps the cold and wind helped him, as not many players were able to skyrocket up the leaderboard and achieve separation from a tightly bunched pack. Sixty-three players are within 10 shots of the lead.
Still, Couples feels his experience will give him a competitive edge as the tournament hurtles into the weekend. "I'm not going to do well [here] every single time, but I feel like I can get it around and figure out how to shoot a score on this course," he observed, showing a plucky side much younger than his 52 years.
Of the 92 players in the field this week, 20 weren't even born when Couples won his green jacket in 1992. Interestingly, he posted a 139 aggregate after two days that year as well.
"Moreover, 63 players made the cut that year, the same as this year," added ESPN's Scott van Pelt pointedly. Things get eerie at Augusta with alarming frequency - but then again, that's why we love this tournament so much.
If Couples wins he'll be the oldest major champion in golf history, passing Julius Boros, who won the 1968 PGA Championship at Pecan Valley at age 48. Jack Nicklaus holds the record for the oldest Masters champion at 46 when, in 1986, he charged from seven shots back to steal both the title and the hearts of the entire sporting world.
Meanwhile, Dufner's path to the lead was more mercurial than Couples'. Though he posted a 70 to go along with yesterday's 69, the rounds were far from phlegmatic. Dufner had six birdies and four bogeys today. He had a similarly wild round Thursday, carding five birdies and three bogeys. Still, Dufner was as typically even-keeled in his interviews off the course as his rounds were wild on it.
"69-70 around this golf course in these conditions, I feel pretty good, it's a good start," he said in an interview with Tom Auclair of the golf websites www.Insidetheropes.com and www.TourPlayers.com. "I'm looking forward to some more red numbers on the weekend. The key is to do it for four days. These aren't two-day tournaments."
They aren't 68-hole tournaments either, as Dufner is painfully aware. He flushed a five-shot lead with just four holes to play at the PGA Championship last year and fumbled the Wanamaker trophy away to a hard-charging Keegan Bradley. Still, the easygoing Dufner has seemed to put that behind him in his quest for a first major championship.
"I've played some good golf in big events around the world, and I've played well all year, so I'll just try to draw on that, he admitted cheerfully. "I'm pretty confident, but I also won't let myself get carried away. I'm right where I want to be and looking forward to the last two days."
With the cooler temperatures and wind picking up, Dufner confided that the course played much tougher than in the opening round. "This is a second-shot golf course and the conditions made it tougher to get it close to the hole with your irons. You really had to control them."
Though the leaders are a surprise, they'll have to hold off a "Who's Who" of golf stars nipping viciously at their heels. Reigning U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy roared into contention with a 69. McIlroy is T-6 in greens in regulation thus far, though he mysteriously has scored significantly better on the front nine rather than the traditionally easier back. McIlroy has played the inward half with two consecutive even-par 36s, while scoring better on the usually harder front nine. Rory was a mere two years old when Couples won the 1992 Masters.
With a 1-over 73, Lee Westwood was unable to capitalize on yesterday's terrific 67 (he doubled-bogeyed 18 Friday), but he is T-1 in greens in regulation, a critical statistic for potential major winners. Moreover, he is only one shot back and displaying the pinpoint iron control needed to place approaches close to the pins at Augusta National and have a chance to convert needed birdies on the weekend.
"The greens are obviously drying out and getting a bit faster, and then, obviously, you know the wind can play havoc with some of the second shots," he explained. "Still, I like where I am and how I'm playing."
Westwood and 2010 PGA Championship runner-up Bubba Watson are tied at 4-under with McIlroy, 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen, (pronounced "LOO-ee WEST-hay-zen"), who has played holes 14-18 at 7-under par for the week, and Sergio Garcia, who made headlines off the course as well.
Known for his love-hate relationship with the golf media, Sergio flipped CBSSports.com journalist Steve Elling a playful bird - yes, he gave him the middle finger - but not the way you'd think. Fighting a painful infection in a fingernail of the middle finger of his left hand, Garcia beamed joyously when Elling asked which finger was hurting and shouted "This one!" - gleefully flipping the reporter off for all the media and golf fans to see without the necessity of glasses or binoculars.
After some of the things the media have done to Sergio that had to feel good. Meanwhile, Garcia has spoken with his clubs as well. He ranks second to Phil Mickelson in putting so far this week and looks rock-solid heading into the weekend.
Meanwhile a surly, swearing, club-abusing Tiger Woods sulked his way to a dismal 75. He screamed "goddammit," threw his driver, and kicked his iron after a shank at the par-3 16th but did little to aid his quest for a fifth green jacket and 15th major. Though Tiger is T-4 in putting and took only a torrid 27 putts today, he was lucky to escape the cut line.
Hitting just seven of 18 greens in regulation - and 19 of 36 over two days, Woods showed exactly how far Bay Hill (where he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational two weeks ago) is architecturally from Augusta National. Those stats won't win at Bay Hill, or anywhere else for that matter. But hey, if they gave out green jackets for screaming vulgarities and slamming clubs he'd have won 15 Masters in a row.
So, as we head into the weekend, Augusta National has given us a bit of everything this Masters: nostalgia, young guns and cagy veterans. With the worst of the weather hopefully gone, the field will be eager as gun dogs that heard their owner take the firing piece down from the mantle.
"This is what we play for," said Dufner. "This is why we spend all those hours on the range."
It's close. It's oh so close.
News, Notes & Quotes
• Though, traditionally, Augusta's hardest holes are 10, 11 and 12, the new Tom Fazio-lengthened Augusta National is showing its teeth at 1, 11 and 18, in that order. The four par-5s are playing the four easiest on the course.
• Australia may have to wait at least another year for a Masters champion. Jason Day hurt left ankle and limped off after eight holes, super-smart Geoff Ogilvy is 2-over, and Adam Scott is treading water at 1-over.
• Four-time European Ryder Cup member Miguel Angel Jimenez outplayed Tiger Woods both days, earning himself some ink and telecast time for something other than his R-rated warm-up routine, though that still elicited some laughs from these observers:
Golf Magazine's Cameron Morfit on twitter: "I need a laugh today. Can we get Miguel to do his warm-up routine again?"
My response: "I wouldn't ask for that today. Tiger might try to put dollar bills in his waistband . . ."
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.
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