Fred Couples turned back the clock on Friday — back to 1992 perhaps — during a seven-birdie second round that even brought a fist pump from the 52-year-old and put him in a tie for the lead with Jason Dufner at Augusta National.
“Can I win?” Couples said, repeating the question that so many are asking now. “Yeah, I believe I can.”
He shot five-under 67, the same score he posted 20 years ago during the second round of what turned out to be one of the most crowd-pleasing wins in the history of the tournament.
“Standing out there, I said, ‘What the hell,’ a lot. What do I have to lose here?” Couples said.
Couples has been around the leaderboard before in his 50s. Two years ago, he opened with a 66 and became the oldest player to hold the outright lead after the first round at Augusta. Last year, he shot 68 on Friday to push his way into the top 10.
This time, he went into the weekend with a chance to become the oldest major winner. He’s six years older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won his sixth Masters on that unforgettable Sunday in 1986. Twenty players in the field weren’t even born when Couples played his first Masters in 1983.
He’s not the only big name at the top of the leaderboard. Sergio Garcia shot a four-under 68 to finish one shot back, tied with Rory McIlroy, who shot 69 and was also at four-under.
“I know I’m playing well,” said McIlroy, who overcame last year’s final-round collapse at the Masters to win the US Open. “The recent results show that. I just wanted to come here and play, put myself in position to win another tournament, another major.”
They were tied with 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood. Westwood spent most of the day in the lead, but three-putted on the 18th green for a double-bogey to close his day at one-over 73 and four-under for the tournament.
“The double at the last [hole] was a disappointing way to finish,” Westwood said. “But if you get out of position slightly on this course, it can punish you.”
Phil Mickelson made six birdies during a round of four-under 68 to pull to two-under for the tournament.
Couples, a winner on the senior tour two weeks ago, often ambles around these grounds, twirling a golf club, looking as if he’s playing a leisurely weekend round instead of grinding through one of golf’s toughest tests.
On Friday, his 106th competitive round at the course, all the scenes looked familiar: Couples bending at the waist to stretch, reaching his hand into the back of his waistband to rub his aching back, squinting into the sunlight, wincing at the occasional twinge of pain.
“What would it take?” he said. “A lot more birdies, a lot more made putts.”
He teed off into a fairway bunker on No. 3, but spun the approach back to 5 feet and jammed the putt home for birdie No. 1. He was pin high and 4 feet away on No. 4 and suddenly, Couples was doing more than playing ceremonial golf — something he has always desperately wanted to avoid.
He hit a hybrid into the 15th green to 20 feet and barely missed the eagle putt. When he rolled in a 20 footer on 16 to get to five-under, he pumped his fist and yelled “Bam!”
He closed it out by salvaging par on No. 18 with a chip from in front of the green that stopped, checked up, spun backward to about 2 feet for a stress-free putt. He doffed his cap, raised both fists and smiled that wide smile, knowing he would be sleeping in late yesterday — and sleeping on the lead.