AUGUSTA: Spain’s Sergio Garcia, winless in 73 major starts, joined Rickie Fowler, Charley Hoffman and Thomas Pieters in the biggest 36-hole Masters leader logjam since 1973 at blustery Augusta National on Friday.
A second day of high winds left the top pack – all seeking a first major win – level on four-under par 140 through two rounds.
“It was going to be try and hang on and make sure you didn’t play yourself out of the tournament with scoring conditions coming this weekend,” Fowler said.
A host of big names – including second-ranked Rory McIlroy, reigning Olympic champion Justin Rose and past Masters winners Adam Scott, Phil Mickelson and Jordan Spieth – lurk within five strokes, setting up a mouth-watering weekend showdown in calmer conditions.
“I’m excited about the challenges that this weekend is going to bring, and hopefully I’ll step up to them and I’ll be able to be up there on Sunday with a solid chance at winning,” Garcia said.
Not since a storm-struck Masters 44 years ago ended in a Monday finish had so many people shared the midway lead.
Garcia, who hopes to end his major drought Sunday on what would have been the 60th birthday of the late icon Seve Ballesteros, opened with three birdies and played even from there to stake his claim to the top.
“These first two rounds are probably the best I’ve ever played at Augusta,” Garcia said. “I feel like I played great. I made a lot of great putts.”
America’s eighth-ranked Fowler eagled the par-5 second, sinking a bunker shot, and added four birdies against a lone bogey to fire the day’s low round of five-under par 67.
Belgium’s Pieters, trying to become the first Masters debutante since 1979 to win the green jacket, eagled the par-5 13th and opened with his lone bogey, shot 68.
“People talk about Augusta so much. It is special but it’s also just another course,” Pieters said. “You have to play the wind gusts and be careful where you hit it.”
Hoffman, who opened with a 65 to claim the biggest 18-hole Masters edge since 1955, made five bogeys in six holes but the American birdied 13 and parred in from there to cling to a share of first.
“I made a few errors,” Hoffman said. “All in all it’s not that bad. I like where I’m at, which is all you can ask for.”
American William McGirt stood two adrift in fifth on 142 with Spain’s Jon Rahm, England’s Rose and Americans Fred Couples and Ryan Moore on 143.
“Gusts bounced all over the place,” McGirt said. “There were a couple times when it literally flipped 180 degrees.”
Americans Mickelson and Spieth and Australia’s Scott were on level par 144.
Five-time major champion Phil Mickelson would become the oldest winner in Masters history two months before his 47th birthday by taking his fourth green jacket.
Northern Irishman McIlroy, a four-time major champion trying to complete a career grand slam by winning the Masters, close with a bogey to shoot 73 Friday.
“Disappointed to finish like that, but I’m still within five of the lead with better conditions on the way,” McIlroy said. “I still feel like I’m right in this tournament.”
Couples, the 1992 Masters winner, could become the oldest major winner in history at age 57 if his balky back can last 72 holes.
“If I’m healthy enough to swing hard at it, I can play this course well,” Couples said. “I have to play incredibly well. If I do that, I think I have a shot.”
Rahm, at 22, could become the first debutante winner in 38 years. He already did that feat this year at Torrey Pines to qualify for the Masters.
“First timers don’t usually have a great history at Torrey Pines either and I was able to win that,” Rahm said. “Nothing says I’m going to play bad or I should play bad.”
In all, 53 players made the cut at 150, but those missing out include England’s Danny Willett, the first defending champion to miss the Masters weekend since Canada’s Mike Weir in 2004.--AFP