AUGUSTA, Ga. — Halfway home, the possibilities are dizzying.
Go ahead and check that leaderboard. You say it’s bunched? Bunched? Puh-lease. Manhattan subway rides are bunched. Easter mass is bunched. Bananas are bunched. This Masters is stacked, loaded, jammed and absolutely preposterous. There’s something for everyone and someone from everywhere.
Five players have nosed their way to the top of the big white boards after 36 soggy and muggy and intermittently stormy holes. In no particular order they are Adam Scott (Australia), Francesco Molinari (Italy) Louis Oosthuizen (South Africa), Brooks Koepka (U.S.A.) and Jason Day (Australia again). Every one of them a major champion. Every one of them worthy of a jacket.
And fans of Tiger Woods (U.S. of A.) should go ahead and strap in. He’s part of a four-way tie just one shot behind.
Let’s start there. Woods went out Friday afternoon and electrified Augusta National with four birdies through 11 holes. He then pured a gorgeous tee shot to five feet on the par-3 12th before the horn blew for a storm delay. For a moment it felt like the ultimate buzzkill, as 30 minutes later play resumed and Woods walked out and missed the birdie putt. But then things really went crazy.
Woods, chomping gum all afternoon, parred the 13th and drove into the left pines on 14, setting up the day’s most bizarre moment. The 43-year-old roped an iron shot off the straw, and as the crowd surged in around him, a security guard lost his footing while attempting crowd-control and skidded into Woods’ ankle. Augusta nearly coded.
But Woods walked it off, and moments later he walked in a 28-footer for birdie, punching the air in celebration. Then on 15 he dropped a 30-footer and flashed an uppercut accented by a primal yell. This was a scream. So far Woods has made a tournament-best five putts outside 20 feet, and in those moments he looks for all the world like his vintage-grade best. When his final birdie attempt on 18 ran out of gas, he was in at 68 and six under, one back.
And that ankle?
“It is what it is. Accidents happen,” Woods said, poker-faced, post-round on ESPN. “We just move on.”
Let’s move to the five co-leaders. What a group. They hail from varied homelands and they play different styles. Day is a deliberate grinder. Koepka is a see-it-and-hit-it guy who loathes slow play. Scott is silky smooth. Oosthuizen is one of the very few who can almost match Scott’s smoothness. Molinari is a technician in complete harmony with his game.
“He understands his swing completely,” said Dennis Pugh, Molinari’s longtime coach, while strolling along the ropes Friday afternoon. “He can fix things on the course, like if he wants more power, he’ll do a step-through in his practice swing.”
Pugh says Molinari, 36, has added 20 yards off the tee in the last two years. And he may need every inch of that distance to hang with the power players around him. Looks at those names! One shot back with Tiger is Dustin Johnson. Jon Rahm is two back. And Phil Mickelson is just three behind after a one-over 73.
Of the five co-leaders, Day is a mild surprise considering that he’s battled a balky back all year and tweaked it unexpectedly Thursday morning when he bent down to kiss his daughter just before teeing off. Day has hobbled around Augusta for two rounds, but Friday he still found a way to ring up five birdies without a bogey.
“I feel a lot more optimistic now today than I did yesterday, and I’m hoping that, barring some outrageous thing that could possibly happen, I’m hoping that I feel this good going into Saturday and Sunday,” he said.
The round began with two guys co-leading the tournament: Koepka and 25-year-old Bryson DeChambeau. Koepka has won three of the last six majors in which he’s started. Four of seven would be Tiger territory. Jack Country. It’s rarefied land. But as effortless as Koepka at times makes golf appear, it became clear on Friday that there will be no coasting at this Masters. Koepka rode a tilt-a-whirl Thursday morning — after a birdie on 1 to seize the lead alone, he hooked his tee shot on the par-5 2nd into the left trees, an area known as the “Delta Ticket Office” because it often produces early flights out of town. Koepka’s second shot smacked a pine and caromed into a creek, and he eventually made a double that dropped him out of the lead.
“You’re going to be tested in a major championship one way or another, and I’ve just got to deal with whatever comes,” he said. “I hit a bad shot; just got to suck it up and just keep going on.” Then Koepka did just that — he made two birdies and no bogeys over his last 12 holes, punctuated by a 3 on 18, to climb back to the top.
After Koepka visited Delta, DeChambeau took the baton and led for most of his front nine. But on the uphill 9th, DeChambeau sent his approach over the green, babied the chip shot back down the hill and made bogey. On 10 he hooked his approach into the trees and doubled. He staggered in from there and signed for 75. “Just seemed like there was nothing going my way all day,” he said. “Every time I hit a good shot, I just seemed to not get rewarded or every time I hit just a fraction of a bad shot it got amplified by something.”
As Bryson faded, there was Ian Poulter, at 1:44 p.m. Augusta Standard Time, knocking home a 10-footer on the fabled par-5 13th hole to grab the solo lead at six under. And less than five minutes later, Molinari canned a 25-footer on the equally fabled par-3 12th to match Poulter. Then Day caught Molinari at seven under with a birdie on 16. As the day progressed, the leaderboard went full Jenga — more and more weight moving up to the top.
It looked like seven under would be safe, but after the rain delay Adam Scott became the first player to crack eight under when he laced a 231-yard iron shot to four feet on the 15 and dropped the eagle putt. But then he yakked a two-footer on 16 to give one back and rejoin the cluster at the top.
Masters rookie Justin Harding shot a 69 with a bogey on 18, and he’s tied with DJ, Woods and Xander Schauffele at six under. Rahm and Poulter are five under. Teeing off early Friday morning, Patton Kizzire shot a second-straight 70 and was wrapped up before lunch — he’s four under with Mickelson, Matt Kuchar and Charles Howell.
In all, 22 players are within four shots of the lead. Any of them could win this thing.
So, is anyone actually out of it? As a matter of fact, yes. Rory (71, even) now looks like the longest of longshots. Jordan Spieth (68, one under) would have to pass half the remaining field. Most shockingly, top-ranked Justin Rose (75-73) is heading home with an MC, and Sergio is gone, too. Paul Casey could’ve gotten an early start on travel plans after shooting 81 on Thursday.
But overall, we’ve reached an exciting and tantalizing halfway point. Now if only the weather will hold. (The weekend forecast is ominous.) Like a storm cloud in full bloom, this event is wide open and pouring with possibilities, and eventually someone will break away and win this thing. Clear your weekend now and maybe set aside a little time on Monday, just in case. You need to be prepared for anything.