A booming surprise: Couples in the lead at Masters

By Eddie Pells

Associated Press

Published: Saturday, April 7 2012 1:31 a.m. MDT

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The heating pad and painkillers are as key to this 52-year-old's game as the smooth swing and easygoing stride he uses to amble around the course these days.

But before people pass off Freddie Couples and his aching back as nothing more than a nice story for a Friday at the Masters, the co-leader at the midway point wants to clear things up.

"Can I win?" Couples said after turning back the clock and playing his way to a surprising second-round lead at Augusta National. "Yeah, I believe I can. Yes."

On a day of sublime, spin-filled shotmaking at his favorite golf course, Couples made seven birdies and shot 5-under 67 to share the lead with PGA runner-up Jason Dufner.

They'll tee off in the final pairing Saturday, one who played the chilly second round in a stocking cap, the other as recognizable to golf fans as Tiger, Phil or Rory, even if that thick shock of hair has morphed from black, to salt-and-pepper, and now all the way to gray.

"Pretty bizarre," Couples said when asked to describe his day.

Well, maybe not that bizarre.

Couples led this tournament after the first round two years ago and was in the top 10 heading into the weekend last year.

After his latest one for the aged, he said he was asked how it felt to have the lowest career scoring average in Masters history, even better than Jack Nicklaus, who in 1986 became the oldest player to win the tournament at 46.

"I said, 'Well, I don't know the last year he played, but his scores kept going up a little bit and mine will be doing that shortly," Couples said. "But today was not one of those days."

Not by a long shot.

Couples kick-started his magical day by hitting a fairway bunker shot on No. 3 to 4 feet for his first birdie. He was pin high and 4 feet away again on No. 4 for the next birdie, and suddenly, he was doing more than playing ceremonial golf — something he has always desperately wanted to avoid.

He hit a hybrid into the 15th green to 25 feet and barely missed the eagle putt. When he rolled in an 18-footer on 16 to get to 5 under, he pumped his fist and yelled "Bam."

Yes, folks, "Boom-Boom" is back in the mix.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Tom Watson, who nearly won the British Open three years ago at 59. "He hits the ball a long way, and he knows how to play this golf course, and he did it a couple years ago."

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

What might it take to finish the thing off?

"A lot more birdies, a lot more made putts," he said. Maybe a painkiller or two.

He'll have plenty of company near the top of the leaderboard.

It starts with Dufner, who lost a five-shot lead with four holes to play at last year's PGA Championship, then lost in the playoff to Keegan Bradley.

"Didn't quite work out, but carried over into this year," Dufner said. "It gave me confidence that I can compete and play at a high level out here and do really nice things."

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