Veteran Couples and young McIlroy move on up

52-year-old former champion and the Ulsterman 30 years his junior head pack but toiling Woods suffers torrid day

Augusta

Thirty years separate Fred Couples and Rory McIlroy, but at golf's timeless arena there is but one single shot between the pair as they head into this Masters weekend. We sensed this was going to be a magical major and the sight of these great rhythmic talents of the ages up there challenging only justified all the anticipation.

The 52-year-old rolled back the decades to shoot a 67 to stand at five-under; the 22-year-old rolled in the putts to lie one behind with a group including Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia. Along with the American Jason Dufner, Couples shares the halfway lead.

Tiger Woods, meanwhile, is labouring in the pack and not beginning to fulfil his half of the "Tiger versus Rory show" billing. Who knows, it might be a veteran who continues to command the headlines as well as the American hearts.

To think, Couples won the Masters, his only major triumph, 20 years ago. Indeed, when he first played the Masters less than a quarter of this field were even born. No wonder, he raised his arms as he walked off the green, before being hugged by Darren Clarke, the Open champion who knows all about ignoring the calendar. It says much that Clarke was caught in the emotion of the moment, despite shooting his own 81. Here was a story to spread joy across even the bleakest of psyches.

"I feel like I'm young when I get here," said Couples, speaking not just for the mature but for those with back complaints. "I stand out there and say, what the hell a lot; what do I have to lose here?" Couples can barely practise, because of his complaint, which makes his candidature here even more astonishing. Of course, he has been here before recently – two years ago he led after the first round with a 66 – but that will not dull the hype of him breaking Julius Boros's record as the majors' oldest champion.

"Can I win here? Yeah, I believe I can," he said. "I'm certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, but I do know this course pretty well. I'm not going to let too many things bother me. It's so beautiful. You can't say it's your favourite place and then break a club on the fourth hole on Saturday."

How that serene attitude reminds of Tom Watson at Turnberry three years ago. Of course Couples can go one better than Watson, but, in truth, this test of the mental stamina as well as the physical will be a big ask for the Seniors Tour superstar. There will be so many pursuers to repel on a congested scoreboard which features more than 20 players within five of the lead; Phil Mickelson being one after a 68 ominously hurtled the three-time to two-under. Then there was McIlroy, whose 69 proved what a competitor this young man has become since his final-round meltdown when leading last year.

Many were already writing off the challenge of the 22-year-old when he stood on the 17th tee on Thursday evening at one-over. McIlroy birdied the last two, then yesterday started as he finished off with back-to-back birdies on the third and fourth. The latter was more commendable as this is an ultra-demanding "short" hole, measuring 240-yards. No matter, McIlroy flipped it to 40-feet and holed it. Further birdies at the seventh and 13th screamed of a boy in form.

"Those two birdies helped last night; they put me in a positive frame of mind going into today and from the get-go I hit the ball a lot better," he said. "I feel I have momentum and it feels good. I hope I can progress all the way through the weekend. It's awesome to see Fred up there. It just shows the more you know this golf course, the better chance you have. He's just cool. I hope I'm that cool when I'm 52."

Woods looked anything but cool as he struggled to reach three over, which actually looked a lot worse than that. Actually it was as wretched as his mood. Does the world really need to see him kick his club, as he did after a fat push on the 16th? This was the 14-time major-winner at his worst, both in practice and in temperament. As Nick Faldo said in the CBS booth: "Frustration is Tiger's 15th club right now." The petulance penalised him and unless he can somehow resurrect even a resemblance of the smooth swing and composure which was so apparent in his win at Bay Hill two weeks ago, Woods will go eight years without a green jacket. How likely would Jack Nicklaus's record mark seem then?

None of which will interest Westwood one iota. The 38-year-old would have left the National's gates wondering how on earth he had slipped to a 73 to concede the advantage he had built so assuredly with his opening 67. Westwood, as he does, hit most of the greens, almost of all the fairways. But so many putts in the nine to 12 feet stayed above ground. Still, he remains slam, bam in contention, regardless of three-putt from 12 feet for a double bogey on the last.

"I gave myself a lot of birdie chances and hit a lot of good putts that didn't go in," he said. "That was slightly disappointing. So all in all I played solidly today and controlled what I could control. I'm not going too far off the lead going into the weekend. And that's a position you want to be in."

Garcia could say the same. The Spaniard charged through the field with a 68 – despite an infected fingernail – although it would have been better if he, too, didn't foul up the last. The 18th is claiming its victims this week. Going into yesterday evening it was the third hardest hole on the course. Garcia, like Westwood, pulled his approach, and his chip up to the green was always short. In the event, Garcia – who, again, like Westwood has recorded so may major top threes without ever popping the Cava – fared satisfactorily in limiting the damage to a bogey.

He was typical Sergio afterwards. When what the right temperament for golf is, he replied: "I'll let you know if I find it." When asked which finger was infected, he flipped the middle finger. "This one," he said. Love him or loathe him, Garcia's tale of redemption would be as rousing as any at this magnificent Masters.

And magnificent it seems certain to be as the big names gathered. For young America there is the enigmatic left-hander Bubba Watson also on four-under following a 71. Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 Open champion, is another on that mark after a 72, while for Scotland Paul Lawrie, the 1999 Open champion, conjured three birdies in his last three holes to stand tall and proud on three-under, just two tantalising shots off the lead. Expectation abounds.

Leaderboard

Leading second-round scores(US unless stated, par 72)

139 J Dufner 69 70, F Couples 72 67

140 R McIlroy (NIrl) 71 69, S Garcia (Sp) 72 68, B Watson 69 71, L Oosthuizen (SA) 68 72, L Westwood (Eng) 67 73

141 P Lawrie (Sco) 69 72, M Kuchar 71 70

142 A Baddeley (Aus) 71 71, P Hanson (Swe) 68 74, P Mickelson 74 68, V Singh (Fiji) 70 72, B Crane 69 73, C Howell III 72 70

143 J Furyk 70 73, S O'Hair 73 70, J Byrd 72 71, Y E Yang (S Kor) 73 70

144 H Mahan 72 72, J Rose (Eng) 72 72, F Jacobson (Swe) 76 68, Z Johnson 70 74, I Poulter (Eng) 72 72, P Harrington (Irl) 71 73

Selected others: 147 GMcDowell (NIrl) 75 72. 148 R Fisher (Eng) 71 77, M Laird (Sco) 76 72. 151 P Casey (Eng) 76 75. 154 I Woosnam (Wal) 77 77, D Clarke (NIrl) 73 81.

Facts in figures

9 Number of birdies hit by Lee Westwood in his opening two rounds at Augusta

1992 The year Fred Couples won The Masters - it is his only Major win

164 Sandy Lyle's score for his two rounds at August this year

80 Kevin Na hit an incredible 80-yard chip for an eagle at the 13th

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