Former Auburn player Jason Dufner and longtime Augusta favorite Fred Couples worked their way into a share of the 36-hole lead at 5-under-par 139.
They hold a one-shot lead over a group of five that includes reigning U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, one of the pre-tournament favorites; first-round leader Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia — two players tagged as the best to never win a major — 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and Bubba Watson.
A total of 63 players made the cut to play on the weekend, including Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson (for a 15th straight year) and world No. 1 Luke Donald (barely). Among the notables to miss were reigning British Open champion Darren Clarke and eight former champions.
Eighteen players are within three shots of the lead.
Dufner and Couples took different paths to get to the top. Dufner, runnerup in the 2011 PGA Championship, was in, out and around the lead all day, eventually shooting 2-under 70. Couples shot the best round of the day, a 5-under 67 — the same second-round score he shot during his 1992 Masters win — he called “very shocking.”
“The game plan was not try to do a whole lot of crazy things,” Couples said. “Just hit the ball solid, and I did, and made a few putts, and ended up shooting a lot lower than I thought.”
For Dufner, the spot at the top brought back memories of where he was in his last major. He shared the second- and third-round leads at the PGA and led on Sunday before losing in a playoff to Keegan Bradley.
For Couples, the 139 represented the same score he had here after 36 holes last year before shooting 72-73 on the weekend to finish tied for 15th. He last held an overnight lead here after the first round in 2010 – at age 50.
Twice during the day Dufner held a share of the outright lead only to meet with a disaster and overcame it.
He birdied 2 and 3 to pull into a share of the lead with overnight leader Lee Westwood, who had yet to begin his round, at 5-under and then double bogeyed the par-3 fourth.
He worked his way back from that to take the outright lead at 6-under after a birdie on the par-3 16th, then bogeyed the 18th.
“I really don’t think about it, to be honest with you,” Dufner said about the emotions of seeing your name near or on the top of the leaderboard. “I’m just playing a round of golf.
“I know the situation and I’m playing a major, at Augusta in the Masters. As a player I know everything that’s going on … (but) I’m just trying to have a nice round of golf, play well, commit to my shots and let the rest take care of itself.
On 4, he short-sided himself off the tee into a gooey lie and put his next shot in the bunker. He birdied 6, then bogeyed 9 to turn in even par. He birdied 13, 14 and 16 to take sole possession of the lead.
On 18, he had to contend with wind and mud ball on his 4-iron approach and hit it five yards off-line into the greenside bunker.
“There is a lot more going on out there than it appears,” he said. “I feel like I have the same emotions and same thought processes as a lot of guys, but I seem to not show it quite as well as some other players.”
Couples managed it well.
His rise to the top is wildly popular with the patrons. He bogeyed his first hole, but played his last 16 holes in 6-under. His birdies came in bunches – at 3 and 4; 7, 8 and 9 (from 35 feet); and 15 and 16.
“I’m certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, but I do know this course pretty well,” Couples said. “I’ve had a lot of success here.
“Someone told me a minute ago I have the lowest scoring average (at the Masters), better than Jack Nicklaus. I said, I don’t know the last year he played, but his scores kept going up a little bit and mine will be doing that shortly. But today was not one of those days.
“For me to be tied at this moment, it’s a little shocking, but I played a really good round of golf today … Can I win? I believe I can, yes.”
Both leaders face questions heading into the weekend. Can the stoic Dufner maintain his front-running pace? He’s ranked fifth on Tour in scoring average before the cut, but 116th in the third round and 76th in the final round. Can Couples’ back hold up under the pressure of a major weekend?
The day started cloudy, windy and cold, but warmed up as it progressed. As a result, the leaderboard was fluid all day.
First-round leader Lee Westwood opened with 10 straight pars then made bogey at 11 to fall out of the lead. He regained the lead at 6-under with birdies at 12 and 15, then double bogeyed 18.
Louis Oosthuizen started the day a shot behind Westwood and gave back three shots over the first five holes. He bounced back with birdies on three of his last five holes to get back to 4-under for the tournament.
“It’s always better finishing that way than swapping the two nines around,” the 2010 British Open champion said. “After the fifth hole I knew I just needed to hang in there. I knew it was going to be a tough day on me and even if I finished level par for the tournament or something I would have been happy with the way I started.”
Peter Hanson, who entered the day tied with Oosthuizen, double bogeyed the first hole, then birdied the next three to climb back to 5-under. He took over the lead when Westwood bogeyed 11, but wound up shooting 39 and finished at 2-under.
Westwood recovered and grabbed the lead at 6-under with a birdie at 15, then double bogeyed 18.
Sergio Garcia grabbed a share of the lead at 5-under with a birdie at 15, then bogeyed 18 after airmailing his approach into the gallery.
Rory McIlroy also got it to 5-under with a birdie at 15, then bogeyed 17 to fall behind Dufner and Couples.
“There was a lot going on there,” Couples said. “For me to be a part of it, it’s really amazing. I’m very thrilled with the way I played today.”
Al Muskewitz covers golf for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3577.