Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter stand between a rather famous returnee and the top of the leaderboard here at the Masters after a second round in which the Augusta National once again restated its propensity for producing intriguing drama.
Tiger Woods' attempt to overcome a five-month break from competition is not the concern of the pair as they try to breach their country's own absence from the major winning enclosure. But they would not be human, and perhaps not be English, if they were not nervously looking over their shoulders and fearing the most famous name in the game re-establishing himself as a remarkable sportsman.
The world No 1 shot a 70 to go with his opening 68 and so move to six-under. With missed eight-footers for birdies on the 16th and 17th it was not quite vintage Tiger; but the magic certainly outweighed the mediocre. Wearing sunglasses because of his allergies to the pollen, Woods proved he is still immune to major heat. "I felt more comfortable than yesterday as I was playing better," he said. "It feels good to be back and in contention. I usually put myself in contention most of the time most years here, and this year I'm right there."
Indeed, he is, although the two men above him have never looked more ready to keep him right where he is on a weekend which has all the potential to rank as the most memorable for British golf. Will either of them dare to deny the Comeback King his most incredible victory? The scorecards suggest they will.
On eight-under Westwood and Poulter hold a two-shot lead over a group including Tiger Woods. Phil Mickelson is also lurking. The red rose duo were rising proudly above the azaleas; on a difficult Augusta day they were showing the way. For the rabid Englishmen here in Georgia their inspiration stretched all the way back to Nick Faldo's last Green Jacket in 1996.
It has been a bizarre English showing in many respects as the country boasts the two pacesetters while the other six representatives all missed the cut. Still, this was no time to dwell on the negative as Poulter acknowledged. "There was a lot of talk before this tournament that the English guys are in good form, and looking at the leaderboard we certainly are. It will be great to go out there and play with Lee in that final group. He took a few dollars off me the other day and I would like to get them back tomorrow."
Of the two, Poulter is playing the more consistent. Together with an eagle and six birdies there was a double bogey and three bogeys in Westwood's all-action 69. At one stage he enjoyed a two-shot lead. In contrast, Poulter suffered just the one bogey. And but for a yanked five-iron at the last, the world No 7's card would have been blemish-free. That would have been some feat as the gusts swirled, the greens dried up and the evil intentions of the pin-placers took their toll. Little wonder, Poulter felt able to say, "It's one of best rounds of golf I've played in a while."
The 34-year-old is unrecognisable from the player who took 12 rounds to break par here. This was his third 68 in four rounds at Augusta; to risk hyperbole, that is Green Jacket form. It is now possible to look back to his infamous "one day it will just be me and Tiger" comments two years and not laugh yourself silly. "Sure, if I win this week it will be a bit of vindication as I would go to No 2," he said. "I guess it's a work-in-progress.
What progress it has been. The WGC World Match Play title he won in Tucson in February was not just notable for being England's first World Golf Championship crown; it gave him validation in America and, believe it or not, even more confidence. "It has helped a lot to win on this side of the pond," he said. "It's made a big difference. And the fact that it was a WGC has given me an extra boost. I'm in a position now where I can go out and be kind of aggressive on the golf course."
He is evidently determined not to back down, but instead to stride out like he did in his boyhood fantasies. "Yes, this was in my wildest dreams," he said. "To be playing Augusta was in my dreams, and to be sitting at the top of the leaderboard was in my dreams, as well. So hopefully we can have a good weekend and be in a similar situation come Sunday night."
His pal will have something to say about that. Westwood began his round in exhilarating fashion, by covering the first three holes in three-under. An eagle three on the second was followed by a birdie on the third. The latter came courtesy of a 20-footer from off the green and perfectly encapsulated the short-game improvements he has made. He is not the complete package yet but he is certainly first-class. All he needs is that special delivery.
When one considers that he came within one shot of play-offs for the 2008 US Open and then for the 2009 Open it is not difficult to understand why he came in so widely tipped. Westwood is the world No 4 and after his Race to Dubai success last November holds the title of European No 1. He produced the performance of his life in Dubai and began this year certain of his next step. It is right there in front of the 36-year-old.
If only Sandy Lyle could say the same. The only thing in front of him last night was the runway. After rolling back the years with a first-round 69, he held back the tears with a second round 86. "It felt like I was playing with a square ball," said the Scotsman. In fact, it was something of a reality check for the seniors all round. Fred Couples, the first-round leader, fired a 75 to go back to three-under, while Tom Watson could not repeat his Thursday heroics either. A 74 put him on the same mark. Over to the young guys.
Leaderboard Scores from Augusta
US unless stated: *=Amateur
136 I Poulter (Eng) 68 68, L Westwood (Eng) 67 69
138 K J Choi (S Kor) 67 71, T Woods 68 70, R Barnes 68 70, A Kim 68 70
141 S Kjeldsen (Den) 70 71, F Couples 66 75, T Watson 67 74
142 T Immelman (SA) 69 73, B Haas 72 70.
143 S O'Hair 72 71, K Perry 72 71, M Kuchar 70 73, D Johnson 71 72, M Weir (Can) 71 72.
144 N Watney 68 76, Z Johnson 70 74, S Garcia (Sp) 74 70, A Scott (Aus) 69 75, D Toms 69 75, S Marino 71 73
145 R Moore 72 73, C Schwartzel (SA) 69 76, H Slocum 72 73
146 B Crane 71 75, S Flesch 75 71, C Villegas (Col) 74 72, S Stricker 73 73, J Kelly 72 74, S Verplank 73 73, G Ogilvy (Aus) 74 72.
147 J Dufner 75 72, L Glover 76 71, M A Jimenez (Sp) 72 75, Y Ikeda (Japan) 70 77, N Green (Aus) 72 75, M Manassero* (It) 71 76, C Campbell 79 68
148 L Mize 76 72, B Curtis 73 75, J Senden (Aus) 71 77, T Clark (SA) 75 73.
149 R Palmer 72 77, S Hansen (Den) 74 75, P Harrington (Irl) 74 75, J Merrick 72 77, B Langer (Ger) 71 78, G McDowell (N Irl) 75 74, M O'Meara 75 74, N Smith* 74 75, L Donald (Eng) 74 75, M Kaymer (Ger) 76 73.
150 K Na 74 76, J Leonard 75 75, S Dyson (Eng) 77 73, E Molinari (It) 75 75, B Benjamin* 73 77, A Quiros (Sp) 75 75.
151 J Rollins 75 76, R McIlroy (N Irl) 74 77, D Duval 76 75, B Gay 74 77, M Leishman (Aus) 72 79, T Hamilton 74 77, O Wilson (Eng) 78 73.
152 S Katayama (Japan) 75 77, S Cink 76 76, L Oosthuizen (SA) 75 77
153 R Fisher (Eng) 77 76, R Sabbatini (SA) 75 78
154 C Wood (Eng) 78 76, V Singh (Fiji) 76 78.
155 B Martin* 75 80, B Crenshaw 77 78, S Lyle (Sco) 69 86, C-w Han* (S Kor) 79 76, H Stenson (Swe) 80 75.
157 C Stadler 79 78, A Hansen (Den) 80 77
164 M Campbell (NZ) 83 81, I Woosnam (Wal) 81 83.
67 P Mickelson, K J Choi (S Kor), Y E Yang (S Kor).
70 F Molinari (It).
71 R Karlsson (Swe), H Mahan, E Els (SA).
72 R Ishikawa (Japan), R Allenby (Aus).
73 A Cabrera (Arg).
74 R Goosen (SA), T Jaidee (Thai).
75 P Casey (Eng).
78 B-h An* (S Kor).
80 J Furyk.Reuse content