AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Sergio Garcia charged into a four-way share of the second-round U.S. Masters lead on Friday at Augusta National where a number of major champions were in striking distance ready to pounce.
Garcia, one of the best current players without a major win, shot a three-under-par 69 to reach four under for the tournament along with overnight leader Charley Hoffman (75), Rickie Fowler (67) and Masters rookie Thomas Pieters (68) of Belgium.
“I feel so fortunate that I’ve been able to be healthy; that I’ve been able to play so many majors in a row ... and giving myself a lot of chances to win them,” said Spain’s Garcia, who has played in each of the last 71 majors.
“That for me is already a win, and then, you know, if we can put the cherry on top, that would be even better.”
The leaders had a two-shot lead over 37-year-old Masters rookie William McGirt (73), who missed the cut in three of his previous four majors.
Fred Couples (70), a 57-year-old former Masters champion, 2013 U.S. Open winner Justin Rose (72), red-hot Spaniard Jon Rahm (70) and Ryan Moore (69) stood three shots off the pace.
Three-times Masters winner Phil Mickelson (73) had two late bogeys and was a further shot back along with former champions Jordan Spieth and Australian Adam Scott, who both posted 69.
Defending champion Danny Willett got off to a miserable start with a quadruple-bogey eight at the first and along with Swedish world number five Henrik Stenson and twice Masters winner Bubba Watson, who soared to a 78, were among those who missed the cut, set at six over par in the year’s first major.
It appeared for a short time that Garcia’s charge had gone off track, when his score of bogey at the par-four 10th was changed to a triple-bogey on the leaderboard.
A few holes later tournament officials acknowledged the error.
The 37-year-old Garcia had hit a provisional ball following a poor tee shot but found his original ball, which had ricocheted off a tree and into the fairway, and went on to make a bogey-five instead of incurring a two-stroke penalty.
“Shane (Lowry) hit two balls to the left and we were looking for one, we couldn’t find it, we found the second one,” said Garcia.
“So we are all dressed in light color pants and blue sweaters, so I can see why they might have made the mistake. But it was fine.”
Fowler had the day’s lowest score after mixing five birdies with a bogey on another chilly, windy day at Augusta National and the world number eight expects ideal conditions over the final two rounds to make for an exciting finish.
“This weekend is going to be definitely a lot of different golf ... there are going to be a lot more birdies, some more eagles,” predicted Fowler.
“These conditions were a bit more of a surprise. This was something different that we’re not used to seeing, so it’s going to be back to something a little bit more normal these next two days.”
World number two Rory McIlroy (73), the highest-ranked player in the field after Dustin Johnson withdrew on Thursday, struggled to launch a move as he made five bogeys to offset four birdies and stood five strokes off the pace.
The Northern Irishman had an unfortunate end to his round when he looked to have hit a perfect approach into the par-four 18th, only to see his ball hit the flag and bounce back off the green. He went on to make bogey.
“Disappointed to finish like that, but I’m still within five of the lead going into the weekend with better conditions on the way,” said McIlroy, who needs a win this week to complete a collection of all four of golf’s major titles.
“I still feel like I’m right in this tournament.”
Editing by Larry Fine