AUGUSTA, Ga. — Even Tiger Woods may have trouble winning all four majors in 2008 if he doesn't win the first one.
South African Trevor Immelman shot his second straight 4-under-par 68 to take the lead at 8-under halfway through the 2008 Masters, and Brandt Snedeker carded a 68 of his own to come in at 7-under. Two-time champion Phil Mickelson lurks only three strokes off the lead at 5-under (71-68), joined in third place by Steve Flesch (72-67) and Ian Poulter (70-69).
Still, the big news Friday was what Woods was doing — or not doing. Playing in gusty winds in the afternoon part of the draw, he shot a 1-under-par 71 and was at 1-under overall, seven off the lead. (The big news Saturday may be the weather. Thunderstorms are in the forecast.)
"A day of patience, for sure," Woods said. "I thought I hit the ball well all day, but you've got to time that wind. I told Stevie I was right at the half-club, right in-between clubs all day. That's the way it goes, that's the way it worked out."
Stephen Ames and Paul Casey were at 4-under for the tournament, while Stewart Cink, Mike Weir and Arron Oberholser also were within striking distance at 3-under.
With the World No. 1 still searching in vain for his A game, Mickelson was the most formidable name on the leaderboard.
"I would love to be in the lead," Mickelson said. "You always like having shots in hand. But I would have had to kind of press the issue at some spots, and I didn't want to do that yet. So I'm pleased that I have a good chance going into the weekend."
Woods started with a birdie on the first hole but gave it back with a bogey on the second, a par-5-salt in the wound. By the time he made the turn the wind was gusting, a bad break for those in the afternoon draw. A 15-foot eagle putt refused to fall on 8, and Woods's ball seemed to peak over the front edge of the cup on the 9th hole, but rolled by.
The four-time Masters champion was a huge favorite coming into this week, for good reason. He won four of his first five starts worldwide in 2008, with rousing comebacks (Dubai, WGC-Accenture), jaw-dropping routs (Buick Invitational) and last-second heroics (Arnold Palmer Invitational). He said on his website that winning the grand slam was within reason, and few doubted him since he'd already won four straight majors in 2000 and 2001. In fact, until he finished fifth at the CA Championship three weeks ago, Woods had inspired talk of an unprecedented season-long sweep, winning every tournament he played. It seemed almost reasonable.
But Woods said earlier this week that the first major of the year has started to resemble the second, the U.S. Open, with its tree-lined fairways and rough. If the course had never been lengthened and toughened, if it still played the way it did when Woods won his first green jacket in 1997, he might have won 10 Masters by now. But this isn't the same place it was a decade ago, and Woods has conquered it "only" once in the last five years.
"Now you have to drive the ball well in order to win here," Woods said early in the week. "Before you could spray it all over the place, and it didn't matter — [you] actually tried to spray it all over the place to give yourself the best angles. On 9 you used to hit the ball so far right to give yourself an angle up to those left pins. Now with the added trees you can't really do that anymore. The holes have changed over the years in that way; [on] 17, sometimes you had to hit it to 15 to get to the back left pin. They've taken that away."
On the contrary, Woods seemed to be aiming for 17 from the 15th tee, losing his drive right, into the pine straw, on Friday. He had to pitch out under some branches, then missed making birdie on one of the few holes that offer them in bunches. He hit the same wide-right drive, his most common miss, deep into the trees on 18, as well, and was forced to play the rest of the hole up the 10th fairway, eventually saving par.
Immelman, 28, played a somewhat softer, calmer course in the morning, and made five birdies on only one bogey. He's looked in control throughout the tournament, and had he converted short birdie attempts on 16 and 17 on Thursday he would be leading by more.
Not that he's sweating lost shots. "To shoot two 68s in the first two days is probably beyond my expectations," he said.
That's partly because his last Masters was a disaster. He got a stomach bug last April and lost 25 pounds over the next three weeks. He also had a tumor removed in December, and came into this week with four missed cuts and no top-15 finishes in eight starts in 2008.
Snedeker, 27, has played in only one other Masters, in 2004, and tied for 41st place. He has a reputation as an occasionally erratic ball-striker but a pure putter, but this week he's lived up to only half of that equation. Through 36 holes, he's hit a solid 26 greens in regulation (72 percent) and taken a tidy 54 putts. Among the leaders only Oberholser has fewer putts, with 52. Snedeker was helped by a chip-in for birdie on the sixth hole, which he called "probably one of the luckiest shots I've ever hit."
Mickelson, too, was wondering if fate was on his side. In addition to chipping in from behind the green on his first hole of the tournament, a break he would call "a two or three shot swing," he felt fortunate to have played the par-5 13th hole in birdie, par.
"What was interesting was, Bones [caddie Jim MacKay] and I have chuckled because in 2004 when I hadn't won a major and I came to 13, and hit a shot that we were sure went in the creek, it stayed up, and I ended up making four," Mickelson said. "And I've hit two shots [on 13] now, yesterday and today, that should have been in the creek, but both of them stayed up ... I'm kind of using that as an omen as well."
If Woods was looking for breaks, he got a bad one on 18, when his third shot, a wedge from the 10th fairway, looked as if it might be heading for the hole until it bumped into playing partner Stuart Appleby's ball and stopped seven feet above the flag. Of course, Tiger being Tiger, he made the putt anyway.
"It was nice to finish the day under par," he said. "Seven back on this golf course, under these conditions we've got coming up, you can make that up."