The man most likely to receive the most sort-after garment in golf from Woods actually already has one. Fred Couples, five ahead of Woods, scored a 71 to be six under. The usual lore of Augusta - so rudely ignored last year - that the Masters does not start until the back nine on Sunday should once more apply.
Two behind the 1992 Masters champion, who eagled the 13th and birdied the 15th but dropped a shot at the last after driving into the trees on the right, were Phil Mickelson, Mark O'Meara and the '93 US PGA winner Paul Azinger. Jose Maria Olazabal continued to be the leading European at two under, but Woods could do no better than a 72 to be one under.
"That was the worst ball-striking round of my life but I'm proud of the way I hung in there," said Woods, who was nine strokes clear after 54 holes last year. "But I haven't lost anything. I'm pretty confident, but the people behind Freddie have to make birdies because Freddie is playing so well."
Woods may not have been his old self yesterday but Augusta National certainly was. There was a calm that was lacking on the first two days and warm sunshine, too. The wicked north wind which had tormented the contestants, as they are known here, had blown itself out and scoring, if not easy, was at least possible.
Not by Woods, however. Four behind the overnight leaders Couples and David Duval, Woods dropped four shots in his first six holes. Any dispute about whether he had three-putted at the 15th on Friday - technically he did not since the first putt was from the fringe - ended when he three- stabbed at the first, leaving a 45-foot approach five feet short.
Worse was to follow when he missed the green at the short sixth. His chip did not stay on the putting surface and he took three more for a double-bogey five. As he has done all three days, Woods birdied the eighth and ninth, but he bogeyed the 10th to drop back to two over par.
Instead the charge expected from his pairing came from Jay Haas, who went out in 32 before finding the water at the dangerous 12th. A birdie at the same hole from Woods was the first of three in four holes but a birdie at the last only undid the damage of a dropped shot at the previous hole. At one under, he was alongside six-time winner Jack Nicklaus, Ernie Els and Colin Montgomerie.
After taking 36 putts in his second round 75, Monty spent an hour on the putting green before embarking on a round of 69. He again struggled at the third, taking a double-bogey six when he ping-ponged over the green. But he still got to the turn in level par and made three birdies on the back nine. "It was okay, nothing wonderful," he said. "But I'm not out of this if I get off to a good start tomorrow."
So far this week there have been louder cheers for Nicklaus and the US Amateur champion Matt Kuchar than for Woods. Nicklaus awoke his faithful gallery when he holed putts of 12 and 22 feet for birdies at 15 and 16 and a long par-saver at the last. "That putt would still be going if the hole hadn't got in the way," said the Bear.
The 19-year-old Kuchar continued to smile his way round the course after equalling the lowest front nine for an amateur of 32. His 68 left him at level par, the same mark as Darren Clarke, Per-Ulrik Johansson and Davis Love.
Clarke, who shot 67 on his first appearance in the tournament, took full advantage of the conditions to come home in 31 by eagling the 13th and 15th. At the 485-yard 13th, Clarke found the green with a three-wood second shot and then holed the putt from 15 feet. Electing to stay clear of the pin at the 15th, he played safe to the right, just off the green, took out his putter and holed from 40 yards right across the green.
"It was a nice bonus making those two eagles," the 29-year-old Open runner- up said. Clarke also birdied the 17th for the second day running to go some way towards making up for his triplebogey seven there on Thursday, when he took six to get down from 100 yards. "I was delighted to make the cut and I went out to enjoy myself,"Clarke said. "Playing with one of the all time greats in Gary Player was great and he was always egging me on."
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