Augusta, Ga. – Jason Day had just navigated rain, wind, sun and shadows to take the lead at the Masters, had positioned himself to become the first Australian to win at Augusta National on a day he called “a big grind.” He wasn’t about to play it cool.
“It feels like every shot is the biggest shot you’ve ever hit in your life,” he said. “This is my favorite tournament of the year.”
Day shot a second-round 68 on Friday to reach 6 under par, one shot ahead of Fred Couples and Marc Leishman. The former is an old guy and the latter is another Aussie, meaning that the top three players on a fascinating leaderboard can cite precedents for weekend failure.
An Australian has never won the Masters, and the one who came closest, Greg Norman, became synonymous with major collapses.
An old guy has never won the Masters, at least no one older than 46, and Couples is 53 and feeling every year on every drive.
“I’m going to quit when I win this thing, I swear to God,” Couples said when asked what he would do if he won. “I’m going to retire. I’ll play golf, but it won’t be this hard. The golf course is brutal.”
“Fred loves it here,” said Bernhard Langer, another Champions Tour refugee who played well, finishing four shots off the lead. “This is his second home.”
Golf fans are accustomed to Tiger Woods’ competitive blinders and the clichés of those who fear glancing at a leaderboard or contemplating pressure.
The Aussies and the old guy played with eyes wide open on Friday.
Day said, “I love this place,” and embraced the challenge left intact by Norman. “Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure on my shoulders, being from Australia and no Australian has ever won the event.”
Couples stretched his trick back constantly during the round, sometimes looking like he was conducting his own yoga class, as the crowd called “Freddie” after every shot. “You get into, ‘Am I good enough to play four good rounds in a row on a course like this?’ ” he said. “It didn’t happen last year. I was 4 over pretty fast on Saturday, which was a real bummer.”
Leishman acknowledged his lack of pedigree — at 29, he’s played in four majors, never finishing higher than 27th — and admitted he can’t keep his eyes off his name atop the elegant Masters scoreboards. “It’s pretty cool to see your name up at the top of there,” he said.
They all sound like they’re playing with house money. Day ended his interview by saying, “Cheers.” Leishman’s answer to one question was “No worries.” Couples admitted that the fans are right by thinking he’s “pretty cool.”
They sit atop a leaderboard that includes eight different major champions among the top 20, and 20 players within four shots of the lead, including the man who seemed poised to seize control of the tournament late Friday afternoon.
Tiger Woods made birdies at the fifth, seventh and eighth holes to tie for the lead. He continued to pour in clutch par putts until he hit a third-shot wedge into the par-5 15th.
Woods had made par or better at that hole in 26 straight rounds. His shot tracked at the pin, then hit the pin so flush it bounced back into the pond fronting the green. Only a brilliant up-and-down from 2 yards back of his original lie salvaged a bogey. After Woods bogeyed the 18th, he was three shots behind Day.
“I felt it was a pretty good shot,” Woods said. “I was pretty [angry]. I felt I played really well today, a round that should have been in the 60s. I played really played well today, especially when the wind was picking up and swirling all over the place.
“We’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got 36 holes and this is a tricky test.”
It’s more than tricky. Augusta National on Friday proved long, beautiful, diabolical and, like its scoreboards, ever changing.
“I mean, this is different,” Leishman said. “This is bigger than anything I’ve ever done before.”
Jim Souhan can be heard weekdays at noon and Sundays from 10 to noon on 1500 ESPN. His Twitter name is @SouhanStrib. firstname.lastname@example.org