AUGUSTA, Ga. — The tough thing about fairy tales is that they don’t always have a great shelf life, especially when there are golf balls, creeks and bunkers involved. One day after Tom Watson and Fred Couples tugged on heartstrings at Augusta National, they ceded the stage at the 74th Masters to an array of scrambling men.
There was the pair of Englishmen, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, tied for the lead, and a young lion, Anthony Kim, lurking two shots back. But it was the specter of Tiger Woods propelling the story of this Masters, a player for whom rust is apparently for nails and door hinges.
A day after he returned to tournament golf beneath the hum of an airplane mocking his infidelity, Woods returned to work Friday under clear skies. He fought Augusta National to a draw on his first 12 holes before a pair of long birdie putts fell on 13 and 15, leaving him just two shots behind the lead of Westwood and Poulter and within striking distance of an improbable fifth green jacket. Woods shot 70 to stand at six-under par through two rounds, further pushing his sex scandal into the rearview mirror as he tries to reclaim his status as the world’s pre-eminent golfer.
“I want to be in contention, and I’ve put myself right there,” Woods said after his round. “This golf course, you can make up shots and lose shots. It’s going to be an exciting weekend.”
While the 50-year-old Couples shot 75 and struggled with his back, the 60-year-old Watson shot 74 and battled his short game. He left a chip short on the 7th hole and took two swings to get out of a greenside bunker on 18.
The chilly temperatures after overnight rain left Augusta National playing longer and tougher, as did pushed back tee boxes and pin placements in slippery spots. The duo of Poulter and Westwood — fixtures on the European Ryder Cup team — played sparkling golf on a taxing day. While neither has won a major, each has been close: Westwood at Torrey Pines in 2008 and the British Open last year, Poulter at the British Open in 2008.
Poulter, who shot his second straight 68, once boasted that when he reached his full potential, the two best golfers in the world would be Woods and himself. “If I win this week, I’ll probably go No. 2 [in the world], which would be lovely,” said Poulter, who won the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February for his first victory in the United States.
Westwood, once a pudgy prodigy, has built himself into a fit and accomplished golfer, missing only the big trophy that would define him. “It’s the only thing really missing in my career,” said Westwood, who shot 69. “I’ve won everywhere around the world, and money lists, and here in the States. I’ve come close over the last couple of years, and I know I’ve got the game and I know I’ve got the temperament. It’s just going that one step further and finishing it off.”
While the birdies of Thursday gave way to bogeys on Friday, the Masters gallery still sensed that a special weekend was nigh. Woods was tied with Phil Mickelson, Kim, K.J. Choi and Ricky Barnes, who last year finished runner up to Lucas Glover at the United States Open at Bethpage Black. “There’s a great buzz on the golf course,” Poulter said. “The crowds are ten deep.”
Most of them were following Woods, who hadn’t played in a tournament in five months after revelations of infidelity sent him into hiding and robbed the sports world of one of its most popular athletes. But Woods has returned to the tournament that launched his legend and played as if nothing has changed. Woods won green jackets in 1997 (by 12 shots), 2001, 2002 and 2005.
If Woods’s Thursday round was about curiosity (Will he spray the ball all over the place? Is he still the same golfer?), Friday’s was mostly about his golf.
For starters, according to the Associated Press, Federal Aviation Administration safety inspectors ordered the single-engine Cessna that was trailing banners on Thursday to stop flying until it underwent minor repairs. (The plane had been flying for an Ohio advertising company, AP reported, and was allowed to fly back there).
After hooking his opening tee shot into the trees at No. 1, Woods was still able to get up and down for par. On the par-5 second hole, he hit a bullet just off the back of the green and got up and down for birdie. After bogeying the fourth hole and making eight straight pars, Woods rolled in a 25-foot putt for birdie on No. 13, raising his putter in his left hand. He followed with a 15-footer for birdie on No. 15. “I feel good, I feel very comfortable,” Woods said in his post-round press conference, and no one on the premises doubted him.
Thirty-six holes remain, and the player who entered this tournament with the most questions has started answering them.