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Fred Couples smiles as he walks across the 18th green following the conclusion of second-round action at The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, Friday, April 6, 2012. (Jeff Siner/Charlotte Observer/MCT)
Saturday, April 7, 2012

Couples grabs lead after second round

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Before there was Tiger, Rory, Sergio or Phil, a smooth-swinging guy named Freddie used to make ’em go crazy at the Masters.

He can still make it interesting.

Freddie Couples turned back the clock Friday – back to 1992 – during a seven-birdie second round that coaxed a fist pump from the California-cool 52-year-old and put him in a tie for the lead with Jason Dufner at Augusta National.

“Can I win?” Couples said, repeating the question that so many are asking now. “Yeah, I believe I can. Yes.”

He shot 5-under 67, the same score he posted 20 years ago during the second round of what turned out to be one of the most popular wins in the history of the tournament. Were it not for the gray hair beneath his cap, this might have been confused for a replay of that ’92 win instead of the second round in 2012.

“Standing out there, I said, ‘What the hell,’ a lot. What do I have to lose here?” Couples said.

Meantime, Phil Mickelson made six birdies during a round of 4-under 68 to pull to 2 under for the tournament.

Tiger Woods had nowhere near as good a day. Struggling with his swing for the second straight round, he opened with two birdies on the first three holes, but gave that all back and more. He shot 3-over 75 and was at 3 over for the tournament, closer to the cut line of 5 over than the lead.

Last year, he was seven back but came back to briefly grab the lead on Sunday before finishing fourth.

“One of the neat things about this tournament is the 10-shot rule,” Woods said, referring to the rule that brings all players within 10 of the lead back for the weekend. “Anyone can win the golf tournament who makes the cut. Guys have won this from five, six down going into the back nine. I just need to be solid, cut that deficit down and get off to a quick start like I did last year on Sunday.”

Couples got off to a quick start Friday, shooting a 3-under 33 on the front nine to move into contention. Two years ago, he opened with a 66 and became the oldest player to hold the outright lead after the first round at Augusta. Last year, he shot 68 on Friday to push his way into the top 10.

This time, he heads into the weekend with a chance to become the oldest major winner. He’s six years older than Jack Nicklaus was when he won his sixth Masters on that unforgettable Sunday in 1986. Twenty players in the field weren’t even born when Couples played his first Masters back in 1983.

Still, he’s hardly the only big name near the top.

Sergio Garcia shot a 4-under 68 to finish one shot back, tied with Rory McIlroy, who shot 69, and Bubba Watson, who shot 71.

“I know I’m playing well,” said McIlroy, who overcame last year’s final-round collapse at the Masters and won the U.S. Open two months later. “The recent results show that. I just wanted to come here and play, put myself in position to win another tournament, another major.”

Also in the tie at 4 under were 2010 British Open champion Louis Oosthuizen and Lee Westwood. Westwood spent most of the day in the lead, but three-putted on the 18th green for a double-bogey to close his day at 1-over 73 and 4 under for the tournament.

Couples, a winner on the senior tour two weeks ago, often ambles around these grounds, twirling a golf club, looking as if he’s playing a leisurely weekend round instead of grinding through one of golf’s toughest tests. On this day, his 106th competitive round at the course, all the scenes looked familiar: Freddie bending at the waist to stretch, reaching his hand into the back of his waistband to rub his aching back, squinting into the sunlight, wincing at the occasional twinge of pain.

“What would it take?” he said. “A lot more birdies, a lot more made putts.” Maybe a painkiller or two.

He teed off into a fairway bunker on No. 3, but spun the approach back to 5 feet and jammed the putt home for birdie No. 1. He was pin high and 4 feet away on No. 4, and suddenly, Couples was doing more than playing ceremonial golf – something he has always desperately wanted to avoid.

He hit a hybrid into the 15th green to 20 feet and barely missed the eagle putt. When he rolled in a 20-footer on 16 to get to 5 under, he pumped his fist and yelled “Bam.”

Yes, folks, “Boom-Boom” is back in the mix.

He closed it out by salvaging par on No. 18 with a chip from in front of the green that stopped, checked up, spun backward to about 2 feet for a stress-free putt. He doffed his cap, raised both fists and smiled that wide smile, knowing he’ll be sleeping in late Saturday – and sleeping on the lead.