Couples moves up Masters leaderboard

Couples moves up Masters leaderboard

Published Apr. 8, 2011 1:00 a.m. ET

For all the talk of golf's new generation, experience still counts at the Masters.

Fred Couples charged up the leaderboard Friday, shooting a 4-under 68 to again put himself in contention heading to the weekend.

''I know the course more than most people,'' he said, ''and that helps.''

Couples, 51, won the Masters in 1992 and made a serious run at another green jacket last year. He led after the first round and wound up sixth, seven strokes behind winner Phil Mickelson.


This time, he opened with a 71 and really turned it on for Day 2, making five birdies and strolling around the course in those comfortable golf sneakers as though he owns the place. He heads to the weekend at 5-under 139.

If Couples can keep it going for two more days — no certainty, given the state of his perpetually balky back — he'll have another shot at becoming the oldest major champion ever.

He still has some work to do, particularly with 21-year-old Rory McIlroy leading the way.

The freckled-faced kid from Northern Ireland was bogey free over his first 27 holes and made the turn with a 3-under 33, pushing his total score to 10 under.

''Can I still win?'' Couples mused. ''Yeah, I think I can go out there tomorrow and shoot a very good score. Then I'd have to do something crazy on Sunday.''

He stumbled only once — a three-putt bogey at the 16th where he misread the line — but closed with two nifty saves.

After driving behind the towering pine trees left of the 17th fairway, Couples lofted his second shot up and over to the back edge of the green. He missed the green with his approach on the 18th, chipped 10 feet past the flag and rolled in the putt.

Never one to show much emotion, Couples pumped his fist once before grabbing his ball from the cup.

So, on the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus becoming the oldest Masters winner at age 46, Couples is trying to pull off a triumph that might be even more stunning.

''It would be the biggest upset in golf history,'' he said.

McIlroy and Alvaro Quiros shared the lead after the first round at 65, but the long-hitting Spaniard began to fade. He took a double-bogey at the 12th and was 2 over for the day nearing the end of a round played in a stiffening breeze that put some teeth in Augusta.

It wasn't bothering McIlroy a bit. He birdied both par-5s on the front side and scooted around the turn after another birdie made him the first player to reach double-digits in the red.

For a while, K.J. Choi was the hottest player on the course. Going back to Thursday, he played a stretch of 12 holes at 8 under. But he struggled down the stretch Friday, going 1 over on the back nine and finishing with a 70 for a 137 total.

After missing a short par putt at the 18th, Choi went to the clubhouse three shots behind McIlroy. The South Korean has never won a major title but he's been a contender at Augusta before. In 2004, he finished third. A year ago, he was right in the mix all four days before slipping to a tie for fourth.

Another South Korean, 2009 PGA champion Y.E. Yang, birdied three straight holes early on and briefly snatched the lead by pushing his score to 8 under. Consecutive bogeys at the ninth and 10th stymied his momentum and he was at 139 after a 72.

McIlroy is one of golf's rising stars, and he teed off shortly after lunchtime looking to avoid the sort of meltdown that ruined his chances at last year's British Open.

After opening with a 63, he got caught up in the howling winds of St. Andrews and soared to an 80. He fought back to finish third, followed by another third-place showing at the PGA Championship, and helped the Europeans win the Ryder Cup.

Former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy shot his second straight 69 and was sandwiched between Choi and the group at 139 that also included Ricky Barnes, runner-up at the U.S. Open two years ago.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson failed to make a move on the leaders. He scrambled for a 70 in the first round despite hitting fewer fairways than anyone in the 99-player field, and his erratic play continued Friday on the way to a middling 72.

''I left too many chances out there,'' he said. ''We've got the weekend to look forward to, and fortunately, I'm not in that bad of a spot. If I can shoot a good round, I can get back in it.''

Four-time champion Tiger Woods was in the next-to-last group, so he had a good idea of the score he needed to make a serious charge. Instead, he looked like a slumping player who won't be breaking the longest winless streak of his career this week.

After an opening 71, Woods was even through six holes and nine strokes behind McIlroy.

It was another warm day, the temperature climbing into the mid-80s with a chance of afternoon thunderstorms. The forecast called for readings in the low 90s by Sunday.

Asked his plans should he collect another green jacket, Couples said without hesitation: ''Retiring! I would be gone.''