The roars echoed and reverberated from green-to-green between Augusta’s pine forest as Tiger Woods continued to defy his body’s own fate to lie just one-shot back on a day which actually belonged to the quietest man, Francesco Molinari, who silently stormed into a share of the lead on the second day of the Masters.
Sparse words were uttered about the Open champion’s opening salvo on Thursday – no doubt a result of the beloved Italian’s unassuming nature - but Molinari’s methodical precision reaped early rewards from a rain-softened course, with a blemish-free five-under-par 67 that evoked all the astonishing cool he displayed at Carnoustie and the Ryder Cup last year, and spoke in deadly volumes to those in his periphery.
So apathetic was the 36-year-old, at the grounds where he served as his brothers’ caddie 13 years ago, that you would have been forgiven for thinking this treacherous golfing landmark was merely another field beyond the window pane of his adopted home in Surrey. After almost holing out with his approach on the third as his short irons masqueraded as a type of remote homing device, back-to-back birdies on the eighth and ninth followed. An unerring back-nine, featuring two more birdies, was similarly exquisite as the contenders mounted behind to chase his early clubhouse lead at seven-under-par.
“It was obviously a very good day,” Molinari said. “I think today, you could be as aggressive as you can be around here. There’s always one side where you can’t miss but with the greens softer you can play a bit.
“Now, I’m just going to rest. The game is in good shape so I don’t think I can gain much from hitting balls. Just get as much energy as possible for the weekend. There’s going to be a lot of players in the mix and a very long way to go.”
Eventually, that marker would be matched by overnight leader Brooks Koepka, whose spiteful resolve was provoked by a double-bogey and further two dropped shots in a near-calamitous front-nine, before ultimately managing to recourse and grind his way to a one-under-par 71. Jason Day, who recovered from a woe of back spasms that left him needing medical treatment on the opening day, 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott and 2010 Open champion Louis Oosthuizen later joined the pack in what is a deep and ferociously contested leaderboard.
But it was Woods whose shadow was cast over the second day as he surged into contention in the evening rain. At first, it purported to be another staccato round of immense promise that lacked conviction as he fizzed in stunning glimpses but never quite detonated. But as the sun set and the Georgia skies let loose, Woods returned with a messianic aura, unperturbed even as a steward slipped in the grass and almost scissored a Roy Keane-esque tackle into the world’s most valuable – and fragile – ankle.
There was always a rare sense of measure about Woods’ performance - only highlighted by his hot-headed and regularly combustible playing partner Jon Rahm. When others threw Hail Marys early on, he held back, laid up and loaded up his arsenal. And finally, midway through the back-nine, after picking up a shot at the 11th, his putter rang true at 14 and 15 as birdies were greeted by fist-pumps and defeating rapture. Bullet approach shots at 17 and 18 both offered chances for him to seize the lead, but both trickled uncharacteristically short. Nevertheless, he walked off the green without even so much as bothering to veil his glee at closing out a four-under-par 68 to leave him in the midsts of another major hunt.
“I feel like I played my own way back into the tournament,’’ Woods said. “I was just very patient today, felt very good to be out there doing what I was doing. This is now three straight majors that I’ve been in the mix and so it’s good stuff. I know how to play this golf course; now it's a matter of doing it.''
It is no little coincidence that this hardened of all golf courses would surface such a formidable and eclectic leaderboard with Dustin Johnson and Xander Shauffele too lurking at six-under-par, while Rahm and Ian Poulter are only one further adrift.
Amongst those won’t be Rory McIlroy though, whose height of promise was once again clawed away by the weight of expectation. With each well-fashioned streak - a stunning tee-shot to the par-3 sixth and a fine eagle at the eighth – came a shade of overeagerness, bogeying the 11th before plummeting into the water on the 13th. Seven shots back, with so much talent stacked between himself and the leaders, he is unlikely to be able to haul himself through the crowd as the hope and hysteria over the Grand Slam look destined to labour on another year.
Bryson DeChambeau was another to see his chances fade, after the enigmatic 25-year-old’s hauntingly brief outright lead unravelled in a boiling pot of frustration on the back-nine.
It was on Wednesday that DeChambeau spent 14 hours of relentless callous-wrenching practice, hitting 125 shots in a regimented system, to try and tune the spin of his misbehaving wedges to the finest degree. But a double-bogey on the par-4 10th on Friday sent the mad scientist into a spiralling time warp and, after shedding a further shot on the run home, he was last spotted in a whirlwind of angry yammering back where it began on the range. Words which will too be whirring in the head of world No 1 Justin Rose, who became the weekend cuts most high-profile casualty after lethargic rounds of 75 and 73.
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