Couples makes time stand still but holding off chasing pack may prove more difficult

Veteran sets the pace on five under before Day’s late surge, Woods lurking despite late slip


Time stands still for some people, and Fred Couples – defying any limitations of old age or nuisances such as a perpetually aching back – contrived to demonstrate his remarkable resilience among the azaleas around this little piece of golfing heaven on earth. The old maestro was up to his old tricks again yesterday, firing a 71 for a midway total of 139, five-under-par, that lifted him to the upper echelons of the leaderboard in this 77th US Masters tournament.

The leaderboard was both eclectic and choc-a-bloc; with both the new, and the old. Couples found himself sharing the clubhouse lead with Aussie Mark Leishman – who added a 73 to his opening 66 – before Jason Day continued to demonstrate his fondness for this terrain by shooting a 68 to take sole charge of the lead on six under.

Tiger Woods, a four-time champion, was also on the prowl again and on five-under through 14 holes before he rattled the flag and his momentum when the ball spun off the pin and into the water on 15. A bogey there was followed by a three-putt at 18 for a one-under-par 71 that left him three adrift of Day.

The case for experience was strengthened by the performances of two-time major champion Angel Cabrera, Jim Furyk and fit-again Brandt Snedeker, the dominant player in the early part of the season before he sustained a rib injury, who all eased into position - on 140 - heading into the weekend.

In a sport that day-by-day seems to be harbouring hopes and aspirations of an ever younger breed of competitor, exemplified by Chinese teenager Guan Tianlang, Couples – a throwback to another time – played one languid shot after another and went about his business without fuss or pressure in manoeuvring into position. Just like the old days.

Now 53-years-old, and making only occasional forays away from the Champions Tour, Couples – in contrast to younger men like Pádraig Harrington (nine over after a 75) and Louis Oosthuizen who struggled in the conditions and were left among the also-rans who missed the cut – found a way to get the job done. “I’m just having fun watching the boards,” said Couples, disguising an inner steel.

On a day which started with grey clouds lingering above, but which cleared after some morning rain showers, the biggest factors became a swirling wind (gusting to up to 20 miles an hour) along with some extremely difficult pin placements that would have tested the patience of a saint.

Indeed, there were some who found the task too difficult when the hard questions were posed: Dustin Johnson produced a disastrous run home of bogey, double-bogey, par, bogey, double-bogey from the 14th. He had assumed the outright lead on his own at one juncture of his journey home, only to eventually sign for a76 and a midway total of 143.

Johnson, of course, was not alone in labouring. But, against that, yesterday’s tough conditions brought the best out of others: Argentinian Cabrera, a past champion, contrived to finish with five birdies in his last six holes, highlighted by a stretch of four straight birdies from the 13th. Cabrera signed for a 69 for 140 to get right into the mix in his quest for a third career Major.

Rory McIlroy, too, showed his resilience. Having bogeyed two of his opening three holes he kick-started his round with an eagle on the eighth in returning a 70 for 142, putting him nicely poised for a weekend attack on a course to grow firmer and more testing.

Indeed, the final two rounds is set for considerable intrigue with Woods, Leishman, Day, Snedeker, Furyk, Adam Scott, Jason Dufner among those setting out their stall. Phil Mickelson, for his part, crashed to a second round 76 for 147 and with much ground to make up on the pacesetters.

Couples, who also held the halfway lead last year before fading away over the weekend to finish in tied-12th, talked of why he continues to impress around this course. “I hit the ball a long way. . . the last two days, I’ve driven the ball nicely, and so it seems like the same old course for me. So then you get into, ‘am I good enough to play four good rounds in a row on a course like this?’ It didn’t happen last year . . . if I can drive it close to these long hitters and have if they are hitting nine irons and I’m hitting an eight, then I’m still right there and I can still do that. But when this course becomes, you know, middle to long irons every hole, you can forget it.”

So, we’ll take that as a yes.

Bernhard Langer, another of the 50-somethings to survive into the weekend after back to back 71s, doesn't think it is beyond someone coming in off the Champions Tour and winning the Masters.

A lot of eyes may be on Woods entering the business end, but the packed nature of the leaderboard means it is anyone’s game.