AUGUSTA, GA. — Here was Tiger Woods, in the center of the 15th fairway at Augusta National Golf Club, tied for the lead in the Masters, as comfortable as if he had been wearing pajamas and slippers. As the light fell low, he faced a delicate, 87-yard pitch shot into the green. A birdie — attainable, even expected, from that position — would have earned him the outright lead.
Woods swung, and the ball tracked toward the hole, perfectly executed. And on a windy day that left so many in the field cursing their fortunes — gusts took well-struck shots and ridiculed them — Woods’s ball struck the flagstick, ricocheted back toward him, and fell into the water.
“I was pretty [ticked],” he said.
Half the Masters remains, the green jacket was not awarded Friday night, and the leader board is full of alluring characters — from leader Jason Day to 53-year-old Fred Couples to 2009 champ Angel Cabrera, on and on. But that one clank off the flag from Woods helped turn what might have been a 36-hole lead into a three-shot deficit, and it provided something significant for the world’s No. 1 player to overcome.
“I really swung the club well,” Woods said, “and didn’t really get a lot out of this round.”
So get ready for a promising Masters weekend. Day, the 25-year-old Australian who tied for second here two years ago, had Friday’s best round, a 68 that got him to 6-under 138 for the tournament. That was a shot better than Couples, whose appearance near the top of the board is both astonishing and expected here; and Marc Leishman, Day’s countryman who shared the first-round lead and followed with a 73.
But Woods, despite his bogey at 18 that completed an utterly frustrating, better-than-it-sounds 71, is just another shot back, at 3-under 141, tied with six others.
“He can make it up in nine holes,” Day said.
Woods’s afternoon tee time came after some morning showers had moved through, but by then the winds had kicked up. Augusta, on a normal day, provides the odd swirl, and guessing the wind can be akin to hurling darts at a board — blindfolded.
Friday, it was at its trickiest.
“If it’s consistent, you can figure it out,” said first-round co-leader Sergio Garcia, who followed Thursday’s 66 with a 76 Friday. “But unfortunately, today it was very, very gusty. There were some shots that you would hit well and it would make you look a little bit silly.”
Garcia, for instance, said he hit what was a strong 3-iron at 15, yet it ended up in the water. Furyk, tied for the lead for a time, also found the water at the par-5 15th, leading to a double bogey. And they weren’t alone. Thursday, 45 players shot par or better, a dozen scored in the 60s. Friday, those numbers plummeted to 32 and five, respectively.
“The golf course is winning today,” Couples said.
Except Couples was among those who gave it a fight. He began with a bogey, and then, by his own admission, “butchered the seventh hole,” leading to a double bogey that dropped him back to 2 under. But Couples, who won here in 1992 and has run off top-15 finishes the past three Masters, isn’t one to get in a tizzy about anything, be it a bad hole of golf or a wreck of his car.
So he birdied the eighth, and never looked back, closing with a birdie at the last that finished off a 71 and kept him just a shot from the lead.
“I’m surprised, but I’m not, like, going to freak out over it,” Couples said. “I would like to have another run.”
Day is in the midst of one of what is likely to be several runs at major championships. His first Masters came two years ago, when he managed a second-round 64, a final-round 68 and was beaten out only because Charl Schwartzel finished off the tournament with four straight birdies. He finished second later that summer in the U.S. Open at Congressional.
But last year at this event, he withdrew with an ankle injury. His wife gave birth to the couple’s first child last July, he didn’t travel to the British Open, and he struggled over much of the rest of the summer. He is, though, invigorated here.
“Obviously, this week is different,” Day said. “When it comes to the weekend, I know there are a lot of good players behind me that are going to play well.”
Since 2000, the leader at the midway point has won the Masters just twice. So look down the board, and consider the others, too. “There’s a long way to go,” Woods said.
He knows it. In eight weekend rounds at the majors last year — including after he shared the lead at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship — Woods failed to break par. Now, he faces a three-shot deficit, a leader board full of threats and a memory of one good shot gone bad, back into the water to give the Masters an entirely different tone.