AUGUSTA, Ga. - Everyone could hear Tiger Woods charging on the back nine at Augusta National, with tree-rattling cheers after each of his five birdies as he made a familiar run up the leaderboard.
The question is whether the two youngsters ahead of him really cared.
Rory McIlroy, the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland, had already finished his round of 3-under-par 69 Friday at the Masters. That gave him a two-shot lead over Jason Day, a 23-year-old from Australia, who showed off some of his fearless play with a 64.
It’s the first time McIlroy has held the lead in a major going into the weekend. And now he’s got Woods only three shots behind.
The kid didn’t seem too concerned.
“If you start thinking about anyone else here, if you let your mind wander at all, it can cost you a couple of shots,” McIlroy said. “I’ll be focusing on my targets and focusing on where I want my ball to go on the greens, and that’s all I can do. I don’t really care what anyone else does. I don’t need to know.
“It will be great for the tournament if he’s up there,” he said. “But I’m two shots ahead, and I’m in a better position.”
Besides, the greater mystery might be Woods.
He has teased before in the 17 months since his last win. Even a year ago at Augusta, he was two shots back going into the weekend and never got any closer. The 14-time major champion has not been able to string together two great rounds since he made his return at last year’s Masters from a sex scandal.
“I’m just trying to put myself in the mix come Sunday,” Woods said. “It’s irrelevant who’s there. My whole job is to get myself there with a chance with nine holes to go. That’s what we’ve always done. And I’ve been successful at it in the past by doing it that way.”
If his name on the leaderboard means anything, today might be the time to find out.
And if the next generation of players is serious about becoming a star, the Masters would be a great place to prove it.
“I’ve played two good rounds to get myself here in this position,” said Day, who is making his Masters debut. “Obviously, I’m not going to back down because I’ve got lack of experience.”
McIlroy, Day and 22-year-old Rickie Fowler, who shot 69 and was five shots behind, played in the same group for the first two rounds and made it look like child’s play at the Masters.
All of them were inspired by Woods winning the ’97 Masters by a record 12 shots at age 21. Told they were 7, 8 and 9 years old at the time, Woods bowed his head and shook his head in disbelief.
“A little older now, I guess,” he said. “It’s the next generation. It’s good to see these guys out here playing with that much enthusiasm and that much zest for the game. And that’s good.”
But it also could present quite a challenge.
McIlroy was at 10-under 134, the lowest 36-hole score at the Masters since 2005. He has tied for third in the last two majors, although this will be his first time in the final group on the weekend at one of golf’s biggest events.
It looked as though McIlroy might build a big lead going into the weekend until he stalled on the back nine, and now 10 players are within five shots of the lead on a course where positions can change quickly.
K.J. Choi three-putted for bogey on the 18th for a 70 that put him tied with Woods at 7-under 137. Another shot back was former U.S. Open champion Geoff Ogilvy, who overcame a four-putt double bogey and a three-putt bogey on par 5s for another 69. He was tied with big-hitting Alvaro Quiros, who had a 73.
Fred Couples, the 51-year-old wonder from Seattle, somehow got into the mix, bad back and all. Couples shot a 68 and was in the group at 139 that included former PGA champion Y.E. Yang (72), Fowler and Lee Westwood, the runner-up at Augusta last year who got back into the mix with a 67.
Puyallup’s Ryan Moore shot a 73 and was tied for 30th at 143, nine strokes behind McIlroy.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson played aggressively but failed to save par too often when he missed the green. Mickelson also failed to birdie the par 5s on the back nine and had to settle for a 72 that put him eight shots behind.
“There’s a lot of golf left in this tournament, and I’m going to be making a run at him and the other guys ahead of me,” Mickelson said.
Asked what gives him confidence he can make a move, Mickelson replied, “Three green jackets.”