AUGUSTA, Ga. — Sergio Garcia started out with the lead. That didn’t last long.
Dustin Johnson seized the top spot. Then he dunked his ball in the water.
Here comes Fred Couples, still chugging along at age 53.
Look out, who’s that charging up the board? Tiger Woods, of course.
But hold on, we’re not done yet. Remember Jason Day, the guy who almost won the Masters a couple of years ago? Now he’s the front-runner.
Hang on, folks, it looks like another wild weekend at the Masters.
“My favorite tournament of the year,” Day said. “I love this place.”
Day was at 6-under 138, but 18 players were within four shots of the lead after a blustery Friday.
The crowd includes Woods, who moved into a share of the lead with a two-putt birdie on the eighth hole, his game looking to be as sharp as ever. Perhaps too sharp.
Right when it looked like he might take the outright lead, Woods hit a lob wedge that was so perfect it hit the flag on the par-5 15th and caromed backward off the green and into the water.
Instead of having a short birdie putt, he had to scramble to save bogey.
Woods posed over another shot on the 18th and was stunned to see it hop onto the upper shelf, leading to his second three-putt bogey of the week. He had to settle for a 71, though he was still only three shots out of the lead.
“My score doesn’t quite indicate how well I played,” Woods said.
Day, a runner-up at the Masters two years ago, can be one of the most exciting players in golf when his game is on, and he was firing at flags from everywhere Friday. Even from the pine straw under the trees on the dangerous 11th, the Aussie took dead aim at the pin and set up a rare birdie to join the leaders.
His only blunder was hitting into the water short of the 12th, though he still managed to escape with bogey, and then he fired a 4-wood low enough to stay below the trees and avoid the wind on the 13th, setting up a two-putt birdie.
He was cognizant of the guys behind him — Woods included — though just as much pressure comes from trying to be the first Australian in a green jacket.
“Obviously, there’s a lot of pressure on my shoulders, being from Australia and no Australian has ever won the event,” Day said. “They have been very, very close, but I’ve just got to try to get that out of my mind and just plug away.”
Couples, who shared the 36-hole lead last year at the Masters, birdied the 18th hole for a 71 and will play in the final group with Day today.
Tied with unheralded Marc Leishman at 139, Couples was asked what he might do if he becomes golf’s oldest major champion?
“I’m going to quit when I win this thing,” he quipped. “It’s probably not ever going to happen, but I’m going to retire.”
Former Masters champion Angel Cabrera birdied five of his last six holes for a 69 and was in the group two shots behind, along with former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk (71) and Brandt Snedeker (70). Woods was at 141 with six others, including Adam Scott (72), Lee Westwood (71) and Justin Rose (71).
And still in the mix was Rory McIlroy, who turned his fortunes around with a 5-wood from about 275 yards that set up a short eagle putt. He added three more birdies on the back nine and had a 70, leaving him only four shots out of the lead going into the weekend.
“Anything under par was going to be a good score,” McIlroy said.
The hole locations were severe in spots, with one pin tucked on top of a mound toward the front of the fifth green. The par 5s played into an opposite wind on the back nine, and they were not easy to reach. Furyk got home in two on the 15th hole Thursday with a hybrid. He used that same club to lay up on Friday.
Such tough conditions made the performance of 14-year-old Guan Tianlang that much more impressive.
He became the youngest golfer to make the cut in a PGA-sanctioned event, despite a one-stroke penalty for slow play that almost sent the Chinese youngster home early.
Guan, playing with Matteo Manassero and Ben Crenshaw, was informed his group was out of position as it left the 10th green. They were on the clock on the 12th hole, meaning players would be timed to make sure they hit their shots within the 40-second limit. The teen got his first bad time with his second shot on the 13th hole, and it was clear he was in trouble after his shot into the 17th when John Paramor, chief referee in Europe, walked out to speak to him.
“You give him the news, the best you can,” Paramor said.
Fred Ridley, the head of competition at the Masters, did not say how long Guan took to hit his second shot on the 17th, only that it was a “considerable margin” over his time. Guan still managed to make par on the 17th, and if he was shaken by the news so late in the round, it didn’t show. He made one last par, finished with a respectable 75 and was at 148.
His game is well beyond his years, and so was his attitude over the first slow-play penalty in a major since Gregory Bourdy in the 2010 PGA Championship.
“I respect the decision they make,” said Guan, who spent nearly 90 minutes talking with officials after the round. “They should do it because it’s fair to everybody.”
The penalty looked ominous because Johnson was running off birdies every way imaginable, the only player to reach 7-under par in nasty conditions. His round imploded, however, when he played the final five holes in 6-over par. That included a double bogey on the 15th when he hit his third shot into the water. He had a 76 and plunged down the leaderboard, though he was still only five shots behind.
Day’s 68 was the lowest score of the round, with conditions so tricky that only five players broke 70.
“It just feels like every shot is the biggest shot you’ve ever hit in your life out there,” Day said. “It’s really, really difficult. I’m just glad to be in the clubhouse right now.”
Sounds like the makings of a great weekend.