5 Things: Dufner getting used to the lead

Jason Dufner hits a tee shot on the 18 hole during the second round of the 2012 Masters Tournament at Augusta National.

Jason Dufner hits a tee shot on the 18 hole during the second round of the 2012 Masters Tournament at Augusta National.

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Five things you need to know from the second round of the 76th Masters:

1. BUSINESS AS USUAL: Don’t be surprised that Jason Dufner has a share of the 36-hole lead at the Masters. After all, the 2011 PGA runner-up is in the midst of a standout season during which he has posted five top-15 finishes in eight starts. On the Florida Swing, Dufner held the lead after a round on four separate occasions. Only problem was, that round never came on a Sunday.

“I’ve had some really, really good rounds,” said Dufner, whose best finish this season is a tie for eighth (Phoenix), “and I’m just kind of searching to put four together.”

Though he still may be more well-known among casual fans for his stoic demeanor than his sterling play, Dufner is starting to make some noise in golf’s biggest events. At last year’s PGA Championship in Atlanta, he had a five-shot lead with four holes to play before dropping into a playoff with Keegan Bradley, which Dufner eventually lost.

Now, in only his second Masters appearance (2010), Dufner is in position to win his first PGA Tour event - and in the biggest event of them all, no less. At 5-under 139, he is tied with 52-year-old Fred Couples for the lead at the halfway mark.

“I had some really nice rounds at the PGA,” Dufner said. “It didn’t quite work out, but it carried over into this year. It gave me confidence that I can compete and play at a high level out here and do some really nice things at events.”

• • •

2. OLDIE BUT GOODIE: In his fourth consecutive week of competition, Fred Couples is looking strong and fit - and he’s playing pretty darn well, too. The 52-year-old turned back the clock Friday at the Masters, tying the low round of the week with a 5-under 67 to share the lead at Augusta National.

No surprise: The Champions Tour regular has finished in the top 15 here in each of the past two years.

“Once you like this place,” said Couples, the winner here in 1992, “it really becomes a fun place.”

In his 28th Masters appearance, Couples will play in the final group Saturday with Jason Dufner. Five players, including Lee Westwood (who double-bogeyed his final hole) and Rory McIlroy, are a stroke behind.

On Friday, Couples bogeyed his opening hole before running off seven birdies to surge up the leaderboard. A winner last month on the Champions circuit, he hasn’t captured a PGA Tour title since 2003.

“I don’t feel old on this golf course just yet,” he said.

• • •

3. EL NINO WARNING: The brisk conditions Friday morning did little to help an ailing Sergio Garcia. The Spaniard, playing this week with an infected fingernail, said he still feels “uncomfortable” when he grips the club.

“It kind of bleeds every time, every day I play,” Garcia said, “but it feels a little better every day.”

A casual observer certainly couldn’t tell anything was wrong Friday, when Garcia shot a second-round 68 at Augusta National. Merely being in the hunt here is unusual for Garcia, at least recently: In his past seven Masters appearances, dating to 2005, he hasn’t finished better than T-35.

With that in mind, Garcia was asked if the Masters represented his worst chance to steal that elusive first major.

“It’s the one that I have done the worst, so probably,” he said, laughing.

• • •

4. BACK IN THE MIX: Rory McIlroy’s double-bogey start Thursday proved not so disastrous after all, as the Northern Irishman has moved back into contention to capture the major that eluded him a year ago. McIlroy shot a 3-under 69 Friday to head into Saturday only one shot back of Dufner and Couples.

“I feel like I’ve played solid golf the last two days,” McIlroy said, “and I could have been a couple shots better, like probably everyone in the field is thinking. But I’m in a nice position, and I definitely would have taken it after the start (Thursday).”

The second-ranked player in the world, McIlroy closed his opening round with consecutive birdies, and that momentum seemed to carry over into Friday. He turned in 3-under 33, then mixed two birdies with two bogeys (Nos. 10 and 17) coming in.

McIlroy entered the Masters as one of the two co-favorites, and for good reason: In his 12 starts since the 2011 PGA, the Ulsterman has finished outside the top 10 only once, at the Dubai World Championship, where he tied for 11th. That week, remember, he was battling a case of dengue fever.

“I feel like I’ve improved a lot as a player over the past 12 months,” McIlroy said, “and I think that showed in how I’ve played this year, and obviously at the end of last year as well.”

• • •

5. INTO THE WOODS: Maybe all of those comeback stories were premature, after all. Because after Tiger Woods’ dominant victory two weeks ago at Bay Hill, who could have predicted this kind of miserable performance?

Seemingly brimming with confidence after ending his winless drought on March 25, the former World No. 1 has looked completely out of sorts this week at Augusta National. On Thursday, he said he reverted to the “same old motor patterns” on his way to a scrappy 72. Woods birdied two of the first three holes Friday, moving only three shots off the lead, but he followed with three missed putts inside 5 feet on the opening nine.

It only got sloppier on the back side. He bogeyed 11 after a wayward approach. He needed a 6-footer to save par at 13 after finding the hazard with his second shot. He botched another birdie chance at the par-5 13th, where he dumped his flop shot into a greenside bunker. He hit a half-shank on the par-3 16th, booting his iron after the follow-through and leading to a bogey.

“I didn’t quite have it today with my swing,” Woods said. “Unfortunately, I kind of had to hang in there and be patient.”

Add it all up, and Woods shot 75, leaving him eight shots back, in a tie for 40th, in need of a low round Saturday just to give himself a chance on the final day. A four-time winner at Augusta National, he has finished in the top 6 in each of the past seven years. Never has that streak looked more in doubt.

“It’s one of the neat things about this tournament is the 10-shot rule,” Woods said. “Anyone can still win the tournament who made the cut. I just need to cut that deficit down a little bit tomorrow.”

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