Five Things: Youngsters steal show at Augusta

Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy walk up the 14th hole together during the second round of the 2011 Masters.

Rickie Fowler and Rory McIlroy walk up the 14th hole together during the second round of the 2011 Masters.

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

1. Youth movement: The patrons stood five deep behind Augusta National’s 17th green, craning for a glimpse of the pairing that once was defined solely by its youth. Rory McIlroy, Jason Day and Rickie Fowler were much more than three players brought together in the name of a cute storyline by the time they completed their rounds Friday, though.

As they walked to the 18th tee, one patron yelled out, “Hell of a day, guys. Hell of a day.”

That may have been an understatement.

The youngsters were the Masters’ main attraction Friday afternoon, overshadowing the players trailing them on Augusta National’s second nine, including Tiger Woods. The threesome combined to shoot 23 under par over the tournament’s first two days. Their 68.2 scoring average was 4.5 strokes better than the field (72.7). Their other impressive statistic? 66, the combined age of McIlroy (21), Day (23) and Fowler (22).

“The crowd really got behind us on the back nine,” McIlroy said. “I think we really enjoyed ourselves out there.”

After rounds of 65 and 69, McIlroy has a two-shot lead. Day, thanks to a tournament-low 64 Friday, is in second place. Fowler, playing his first Masters, is tied for seventh at 5 under par.

“We had fun out there, chatting it up a bit up on the fairways and when we had some downtime,” Fowler said.

Day, despite being unmatched over the second round, was overshadowed by his playing partners, who are engaged in a friendly rivalry that’s the centerpiece of talks about golf’s emerging stars.

As the threesome walked up the first fairway, Day joked, “I’m going to have to start paying people to yell my name out.”

Day shouldn’t be discounted, though. He won last year’s Byron Nelson and was 10th in his most recent major, last year’s PGA Championship.

“It feels amazing to be in the position I’m in,” Day said.

Remarked Fowler’s caddie, Joe Skovron, on the 17th tee, “You guys could have won some bets.”

Even better, they have a chance to win the Masters.

2. Star power: If McIlroy is to win his first major championship this week, he’ll have to go through Tiger Woods, who shot 66 Friday to get within three of the lead.

“The whole idea was to peak for this,” Woods said after a second-nine 31, including a birdie on No. 18.

This was Woods’ lowest round at Augusta National since a third-round 65 in 2005; he won his fourth and final green jacket that year. Woods was third entering the weekend of last year’s Masters, his first tournament in his comeback from his scandal. He finished fourth.

He’ll be paired Saturday with K.J. Choi, with whom he was paired for all four rounds last year.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson enters the weekend tied for 20th place at 2 under par (70-72). He compared his position to the one he was in at last week’s Houston Open, where he shot 63-65 on the weekend to win.

“These next two days are my favorite two days of the year,” he said. “I’m going to have to make a good run tomorrow.”

3. Steady Freddie: Fred Couples, bad back and all, is back in contention at Augusta National. The 51-year-old shot 68 Friday, and is tied for seventh at 5-under 139, five shots off the lead. This isn’t the first time he’s contended here as a senior citizen: he held the first-round lead last year before finishing sixth.

“I feel like I can still play this course,” said Couples, who added it’s probably the one Tour course where he still can win. “When January comes, I get excited for April. … I like seeing my name on the leaderboard here. It’s kind of fun.”

Twenty-five years after Jack Nicklaus’ victory here at 46 years old, could we see another former champion past his prime slip on another green jacket? Couples thinks so.

“Could I win? Am I looking forward to playing tomorrow?” he said. “You’d better believe it.”

4. Amateurs: Asian Amateur champion Hideki Matsuyama was the only amateur to make the cut, clinching low-amateur honors with two rounds remaining. With a 1-over 145 (72-73) over the Masters’ first two rounds, Matsuyama became the first Asian Amateur champion to make the cut at the Masters. His performance validates a fledgling tournament that was criticized upon its creation two years ago.

The Asian Amateur was created in 2009 by the Augusta National Golf Club, the R&A and the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation, and its winner was immediately granted a Masters exemption. Some felt a sacred Masters invitation shouldn’t be given to the winner of an inaugural tournament in a distant region, where the quality of amateur competitors was unknown.

Matsuyama’s play should mute that criticism.

Matsuyama bested the five other amateurs at Augusta National by at least three shots. Lion Kim (76-72) and David Chung (72-76) tied at 4 over par. Peter Uihlein shot 72-77, while Jin Jeong fired 73-77 and Nathan Smith shot 75-77.

5. The deepest cut: The 36-hole cut fell at 1-over 145, tying the record for lowest in tournament history. The cut has fallen at 145 five previous times, most recently in 2009.

Among the notables to miss the cut were past champion Zach Johnson (146), Anthony Kim (146), Stewart Cink (146), who missed by a shot after playing his final six holes in 4 under; Mark Wilson (147), Graeme McDowell (147), Jhonattan Vegas (148), Retief Goosen (148), Louis Oosthuizen (149), Padraig Harrington (149), Martin Kaymer (150), Davis Love III (152) and Vijay Singh (154).

Kaymer, the No. 1 player in the world, has missed four consecutive cuts at the Masters.

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