AUGUSTA, Ga. — For most of Friday, the 75th Masters belonged to The Three Musketeers. If you had any doubt about golf witnessing a generational change, it should’ve been erased by the leaderboard here, which was covered in red numbers posted by young stars.
One of the cutest pairings in Masters history turned into one of the most efficient as the Musketeers — 21-year-old Rory McIlroy, 22-year-old Rickie Fowler and 23-year-old Jason Day — played together and combined for a 36-hole total of 23 under par. If the Masters were a three-man team event, they’d be running away with it.
“Being around good golf helps,” said Fowler. “I was just trying to keep up with those guys. I thought we’d have a great time, and we went out and did that.”
McIlroy, the leader, sizzled Thursday with 65 and pushed his total to 10 under par with a 69 on Friday. Day was even hotter Friday, firing 64 to race into second at eight under. Fowler shot 69 to tie for seventh at five under.
But the day of the young guns turned into an evening of resurgence for the game’s biggest star. Tiger Woods went on a back-nine birdie spree, shooting 31 on the way in for a 66 and a seven-under total. He’s tied for third with K.J. Choi.
The Three Musketeers? Ho-hum. The roars on the course told the story: Tiger was making a move.
Woods birdied three holes in a row starting at the eighth, then put together another run of three straight starting at the 13th. A fourth birdie seemed likely until he missed a short birdie putt at the par-3 16th after sticking his tee shot in tight. He hit another one close at the 18th, a dramatic cut shot from the right rough that went around a tree and back to the green. Then, with the late-evening sun barely glinting off his putter shaft, he rolled in the 10-foot putt and gave a few sedate (for him) fist pumps.
It was quite a moment, and the gallery members who weren’t standing got up as Woods, Robert Allenby and Graeme McDowell exited the green. If this is the week that Woods turns his career around, that putt in the fading sunlight might prove to be the exact moment it happened. He looked like the Tiger of old again.
“I played my way back into the championship,” Woods said. “It was nice to get it going today.”
So here’s how it stands going into the weekend at Augusta National Golf Club: We’ve got the three bright young stars of tomorrow, plus the big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros, who slipped back to a tie for fourth after his opening 65. We’ve also got the (relatively) old guys, who seem to have played decisive roles in just about every Masters for the last decade — Woods, Phil Mickelson, Fred Couples and Lee Westwood.
Mickelson shot a sloppy 72 and is two under, eight shots behind McIlroy. With a round in the 60s on Saturday, he would be right back in it. Couples, one of the most consistent players here in the modern era, forgot he was 51 and put up a 68 to tie for seventh.
Is this going to be a wild weekend or what?
There are plenty of other familiar contenders. K.J. Choi reached seven under par, Geoff Ogilvy got to six under, and Lee Westwood, Y.E. Yang and Ricky Barnes joined Couples and Fowler at five under.
It was a draining Friday. Couples seemed like the surprise of the day until Day came along, and then Tiger took the title with his strong finish. This volatility, the ability to put up low numbers, is what makes the Masters so great.
There was no sign of McIlroy faltering. He played a terrific shot from the fairway bunker on the 18th to 10 feet but missed his last birdie try.
“Rory is playing very well,” Fowler said. “I haven’t seen him miss many shots in two days.”
Day shot the tournament’s low round with some impressive shots and a little luck. He hooked an 8-iron shot out of the pine needles at the ninth hole, nearly slipping and falling, and watched it bounce and roll to within two feet for a tap-in birdie. “I guess pine needles are like skating on ice,” the young Aussie said.
He knocked it on in two at the par-5 13th and two-putted for birdie, he pushed a 9-iron at the 16th and got away with it, making another short putt, and his wedge shot at the 18th spun back, caught the slope and trickled to a foot. He could do no wrong.
“It was a lot of fun,” Day said. “I said to the boys as we were walking to the first tee, I’m going to have to start paying people to yell my name out there because they’re all yelling yours. It got better at the end today.”
Day, who won last year’s Byron Nelson Classic, was asked if experience at Augusta National was overrated because his group of young players was faring so well.
“No, no, no,” Day said. “You need experience on Saturday and Sunday here. Those are the two big rounds.”
There are no names on the leaderboard that any wizened golf observer wouldn’t consider green jacket-worthy. Some are less experienced, like McIlroy and Spain’s Alvaro Quiros and Day. But the big-hitting Quiros made a good point in reply to a question wondering if McIlroy was too young.
“He’s young, and good! What’s the problem?”
The veterans are old and good, notably Couples, who missed the cut in Houston last week and appeared to be in pain. It wasn’t shocking that he had a good start here, given his amazing Augusta National track record, but it was a surprise given how his back was bothering him last week.
“Fred still has a tremendous amount of game and hits it plenty long,” said Steve Stricker, who was paired with Couples. “I heard a couple of groans come out of him. He’s playing hurt. That’s what is even more impressive. If he was healthy, it would be scary.”
It’s nothing new for Couples. His Masters record is remarkably consistent. “I’m not re-energized, but I wait the whole year to come here. This is my favorite event. The excitement is there for everybody, but for me, it’s a place where I feel very good about playing.”
Mickelson, who won in Houston last week, needs a pair of rounds in the 60s this weekend. In classic Phil style, he reversed his play from Thursday, when he drove it poorly but did a great job of getting up and down to save pars. On Friday, he drove it well (using the other of the two drivers he put in the bag) but missed a slew of par-saving putts. He shot a 72 that could’ve been much better after a 70 that could’ve been much worse.
“I left too many shots out there,” he said. “I just can’t afford to do that. It’s like last week in Houston, where if I can make a move on Saturday, I’m in a position to get right back in it.”
Then there were Woods, Lee Westwood and Geoff Ogilvy. They all played themselves back into the mix.
Ogilvy, who won the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot after Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie fumbled it, shot a second straight 69 and survived a four-putt for double bogey at the second green.
“No one is going to go 72 holes without doing something like that,” Ogilvy said. “I was a lot less worried about that than I might have been in a normal tournament because you know things like that are going to happen around here.”
Westwood posted a 67 to fill the first page of the leaderboard with world-class names. Two other key players in the mix are Choi, who finished fourth in last year’s Masters, and Y.E. Yang, the man who outplayed Woods head-to-head to win the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine.
Choi has replaced three of his mid-irons with hybrids. He mistakenly told reporters that he was using four hybrids and laughed like a youngster caught with his hand in the cookie jar later when a reporter questioned him about it.
As for the unique mix of clubs in his bag, Choi said via an interpreter, “My personality is that with my mind, I have to try it and see what I can do rather than not have the courage to do something I feel if it’s right.”
Another obvious wild-card is Barnes, a former U.S. Amateur champion who has been in contention in several major championships even though he has never won on the regular PGA Tour.
“I hope to get into contention in all tournaments, not just majors,” said Barnes, 30, a University of Arizona alum who tied for 10th in last year’s Masters. “I think it’s just because pars don’t kill you here. I hit the ball really well on the last three or four holes, had some really great looks, but two-putting won’t kill you. Whereas at some other tournaments, you’re going to get lapped.”
Some players who got lapped will get the weekend off. Sweden’s Henrik Stenson shot 83 the first day and had no chance of making the cut. He shot 74 Friday to finish dead last at 13 over. Vijay Singh shot 76, then followed it with 78. David Love played his way back into the Masters for the first time since 2007 but shot 75-77 and missed the cut. Tom Watson finished at seven over par.
Germany’s Martin Kaymer, ranked No. 1 in the world, wasn’t able to recover from an opening 78. After Friday’s 72, he was 16 strokes behind McIlroy and done for the tournament.
But there are still plenty of veteran stars to balance the young players making noise at Augusta. Make sure your DVR is set correctly tomorrow. This is one Masters weekend you won’t want to miss.