AUGUSTA, Ga. — For the first time in his 28-year Masters career, Fred Couples visited Augusta National on the Sunday before the tournament. He had been playing so poorly in the run-up to this week that he felt he needed some extra reps. With his teacher Paul Marchand at his side, the 53-year-old pupil strolled Augusta's heaving fairways, seeking answers in the dirt.
"He was standing an inch from me saying, 'Do this,' " Couples said. "I got better fast."
Through 36 holes at this 77th Masters, Couples is at five-under-par, just one shot off the lead held by Australian Jason Day.
But stop us if you've heard this story before. Three years ago at the Masters, Couples held the 18-hole lead; the next day he shot 75 and eventually finished sixth. Last year, he took a share of the lead into the weekend; he closed 75-72 to tie for 12th. Like tinkly piano music and mushy cheese sandwiches, the Freddie Tease is a Masters tradition unlike any other.
"I'm not going to kid you," Couples said Friday when asked whether a greybeard with a creaky back can win this thing. "I mean, it's a hard course. I'm really tired. I'm swinging hard at every drive I hit."
He wasn't the only one.
A day after Phil Mickelson all but taunted Augusta National, citing its soft greens and vulnerable pins, the course bit back. Only four players broke 70 on Friday, and the field scoring average jumped to 74.16, more than a stroke higher than the first-round average. "Everything was thrown at us," said Adam Scott after a 72 that left him three off the lead. "It was a little bit swirling and then gusty at times and then moving 20, 30, 40 degrees quickly from hole to hole. So it's really hard to judge shots."
Tiger Woods, after a second-round 71, is tied with Scott and five others at 3-under-par, three back of Day. Woods played the outward nine in 33, but as winds picked up in the afternoon, so did his scores. At the par-5 15, where an incoming wind forced most players to lay up, Woods played what looked to be a perfect wedge to a treacherous hole location on the far left of the green. As his ball descended, it struck the bottom half of the flagstick and rolled back into the pond that fronts the green. Woods took a drop and saved his bogey. After a sand-save par at 16, he made par at the 17th, then three-putted the home hole for a 71. Still, Woods was pleased.
"My ball-striking was so good today," Woods said. "Even my misses were on top of flags."
Day, who is looking to exorcise Greg Norman's demons and become the first Australian to slip on the green jacket, hasn't exactly been a model of ball-striking excellence; he hit just 11 greens in regulation in each of the first two rounds. But he has been burning up the greens. Day has needed only 1.42 putts per hole (second-best in the field) through two rounds and has yet to three-putt.
"When Phil said, 'I'm going to go out there and attack the pins' yesterday, for some reason I knew that the greens were going to be firm and it was going to be tough," Day said, drawing laughter from the assembled press. "But obviously the weather was probably the biggest factor. Trying to stay committed to the shot."
Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old sensation from China, struggled with the swirling wind and club selection throughout the afternoon. His hesitancy cost him a one-stroke penalty for slow play; it was the first time a player had been docked a stroke for a slow-play in a major since Steve Lowery at the 2004 PGA Championship.
Tournament officials deemed Guan and his playing partners, Ben Crenshaw and Matteo Manassero, out of position on the 10th hole. Guan was put on the clock on the par-3 12th hole and received his first slow-play warning after his second shot at 13. "In keeping with the applicable rules, he was penalized following his 2nd shot on the 17th hole when he again exceeded the 40-second time limit by a considerable margin," Fred Ridley, the competition committees chairman, said in a statement.
Guan told ESPN that he agreed with the penalty and that he needs to learn to execute shots with more haste, but also that the wind in Amen Corner made club selection difficult. "I think my routine is good," Guan said. "The only problem is I have to make the decision."
Crenshaw acknowledged that Guan played at slowly at times, but was still full of sympathy for his young playing partner. "This isn't going to end up pretty, I don't think," Crenshaw said. "I'm sick. I'm sick for him. He's 14 years old."
Brandt Sndeker, who shot his second-consecutive 70 and is tied for fifth, also chimed in. "I wish they would have made an example out of somebody else except for a 14-year-old kid," he said. "Made an example out of me or somebody else, but a kid just trying to make a cut in his first week of the Masters?"
The ruling clearly touched a nerve, inside the golf world and out. "Guan shouldn't have the penalty," rapper Lil Wayne wrote on Twitter. "Shame on the Masters."
Sergio Garcia's fiercest opponent Friday wasn't Day or Couples or even a toughened-up Augusta. It was Sergio Garcia. By his own admission, it wasn't a matter of if the Spaniard would cough up his 18-hole lead, but when. "Let's enjoy it while it lasts," Garcia had said Thursday evening.
It didn't last long. Garcia played the outward nine in 38, then rinsed two balls on Amen Corner (his approach at 11 and his tee shot at 13), followed by a third ball at the 15th, where Garcia said his 3-iron approach was batted into the greenside pond by an unexpected gust. "There were some shots that you would hit well and it would make you look a little bit silly," said Garica. "When it's this gusty you have to get lucky because you have to guess if it's going to gust or not." Garcia carded a 76, but at 2-under for the tournament he is still very much in the mix.
Couples wasn't the only senior sensation to make the cut. A pair of 55-year-olds also will also play the weekend: Germany's Bernhard Langer and Scotland's Sandy Lyle, whose oversized Black Swan putter has turned more heads at Augusta that Lindsey Vonn. "It hasn't turned into an ugly duckling yet, has it?" Lyle joked after shooting even-par 72 on Friday.
Langer was asked whether a player from the 50-plus set could win this tournament. "I think it's possible," he said. "I always thought that Freddie, with his length, could win it."
And if that happens?
"I'm going to quit," Couples said. "When I win this thing, I swear to God I'm going to retire."