Field still wide open in tough Masters setting

Published Apr. 6, 2012 9:12 p.m. ET

There is reason they have the 10-shot rule at the Masters. Anyone within 10 of the lead has a reasonable chance of winning the tournament.

It's not because Augusta National yields a lot of scores in the low 60s, especially on the weekends (the course record is 63, set by Nick Price back in 1986 when it was 500 yards shorter and rough-free). Nor is it because the tournament is a US Open-type grind where one par after another will gain ground on the field.

In fact, you can make plenty of birdies at the Masters (Jason Dufner had 11 in the first two days; Fred Couples and Rory McIlroy both had 10). However, you can also make a lot of double and triple bogeys without hitting the ball that badly.

Even on days like the first two when the course played soft and the wind was a cool breath through the towering pines, bogeys, doubles and "others" were more prevalent than pollen. And the guys who made those big numbers weren't all that far off their games.

Henrik Stenson was playing great, leading the tournament by two shots at 5-under on Thursday, when he got to the last hole -- an uphill par-four with no water. Then, one gently tugged tee shot, one low punch under the trees, one cold-top off the pine straw, a wedge that flew five yards too far, a chip and three putts later, Stenson finished with a quadruple-bogey eight.

Lee Westwood was also leading when he made double-bogey six on 18. And Sergio Garcia would be tied for the lead but for a bogey at the last.

Aaron Baddeley would also be sharing the lead if he hadn't made a seven on the par-four fifth. Luke Donald also had a seven on the eighth hole, a par-five that normally yields a bevy of birdies and an eagle or two on the weekend.

No course gives more to perfectly played shots than Augusta National. But no course takes more away from those shots that are hit just a fraction off line. That is what enabled Jack Nicklaus to shoot 30 on the back nine to win in 1986, and what caused McIlroy to shoot 43 on the back to lose last year.

The 14th is a prime example. Not only is there no water on the hole, but there are no bunkers. But the green looks like a dinosaur burial ground. As Geoff Ogilvy aptly pointed out: "If you miss your target on that green by no more than a foot, you could be 100 feet away before you know it."

"Every single shot out there is testing," Garcia said after shooting 68 to enter the weekend a shot out of the lead, held by 52-year-old Fred Couples and Auburn-resident Jason Dufner. "You have to drive the ball very well. It's long and narrow and it tests every single part of your game."

"It is a very, very difficult course," Couples said after shooting the low round of the day, a 67 that included seven birdies and two bogeys. "I played a really good round of golf today, but I have to do the same tomorrow or these guys are going to fly right by me."

"You have to drive the ball well here, and thankfully I've done that," McIlroy said after recovering from a double bogey on the first hole he played on Thursday to enter the weekend one shot back. "I think every time you come here you get more comfortable. And now I feel like I have a good enough short game that I can be a little more aggressive."

Aggressive at Augusta is either a blessing or a curse. Ask Greg Norman, who never figured out how to throttle back his go-for-broke style and never won a green jacket, or Arnold Palmer, who knew how to pour it on at exactly the right time and won four.

Nicklaus won five Masters by never beating himself. The sixth he won through inspiration, willpower and three late collapses by Norman, Tom Kite and Seve Ballesteros.

"Players who are comfortable here usually play well," Couples said. "Jack was that way. Tiger was that way. Phil is still that way. And I'm that way. … I love this place, so I try not to let it get to me, no matter how I'm playing."