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AUGUSTA - Decades often converge at Augusta National Golf Club. In many ways the week is a throwback – a world without cell phones and with a great deal of personal interaction.
Friday was a throwback on the Masters course as well, as Augusta favorites Phil Mickelson and Fred Couples put time in reverse as each attempts to become the oldest Masters champion in history.
The leaderboard entering Saturday’s play shows every age. Rickie Fowler is 28. Sergio Garcia is 37. Phil Mickelson is 46. Fred Couples is 57. They are all in the Top 10, with Fowler and Garcia part of a four-way tie for the lead.
“I feel like my age is still okay, because I can drive it far enough,” Couples said after his 2-under round of 70 on Friday, including a tap-in birdie on 18 that sent the Augusta patrons into a near-raucous frenzy. “I’m not long like I used to be on this kind of course, but it still plays where I can reach a lot of these greens with shorter clubs to make the ball stop around the hole.”
Couples made Friday feel like Groundhog Day, the ’92 Masters Champion making his 29th cut in 32 appearances, more cuts made than anyone who didn’t hit a ceremonial tee shot on Thursday. Only Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player have played into Saturday at Augusta more times than Couples.
“I’ve had a lot of good finishes here, and my goal is to keep fighting with these guys. But (Saturday), it’s a tough day,” Couples said post-round, sitting three shots off of the lead entering the third round.
Couples has finished in the Top 20 at the Masters five times since turning 50. To the Augusta patrons, he’s always the crowd-pleaser.
“I was watching,” Rickie Fowler said of Couples, who was playing in the group ahead of him. “Freddie’s impressive. He always finds a way around here. This isn’t somewhere new for him. He’s fun to watch. He’s someone that I looked up to for a long time.”
Mickelson shrugs off his age, even as he’s several months older than Jack Nicklaus was when The Golden Bear won in ’86 at age 46. The three-time champion cites new fitness and health regiments of today’s players as reasons for career longevity.
“I’m playing well, and I’ve been putting well other than (Friday),” Mickelson said after his second round, finishing the roller-coaster round with a 1-over 73. “I’m very optimistic I’m going to make a good run.”
Mickelson sits at even par entering the third round in a tie for 10th with fellow former Masters Champions Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth.
Garcia is the wild card of sorts, the ‘best current player never to win a major’ nominee playing in his 19th Masters. Garcia birdied his first three holes on Friday, shooting a 3-under 69 and leaving himself tied for the lead at 4-under with Fowler, Charley Hoffman and Thomas Pieters entering Saturday’s play.
Hoffman shot a 3-over 75 Friday after he held a four-shot lead entering Friday’s round.
“It definitely helps if you’ve been around a little bit,” Garcia said Friday. “You know what to expect, you realize that sometimes funny things are going to happen with good shots, and you accept that, then you can do better.”
Golf’s greatest prize remains up for grabs entering the weekend, with 15 players within five shots of the lead, but Fowler would like to see the guy he’s looked up to standing next to him on Sunday.
“We’ll see,” a grinning Fowler said. “I’m hoping to continue the good play, so Freddie’s going to have to play nice (Saturday) and we’ll get that Sunday pairing.”
Vince Johnson is covering his ninth Masters Tournament. You can follow his Masters coverage in real time on Twitter @vincejohnson.