On the 25th anniversary of his Masters victory, his hair silvery but his swing as fluid as ever, Couples, 57, shot a 2-under 70 to move into a tie for sixth place at 143, three strokes off the pace. Mickelson, a three-time Masters winner, posted a 73 to stand four behind the leaders, Charley Hoffman, Sergio Garcia, Rickie Fowler and Thomas Pieters.
Couples’ ageless play has become almost a fixture at the Masters. He has finished the first two rounds in the top 10 six out of the last seven years. The only exception was last year, when he was unable to play because of his ailing back. In 2012, at age 52, Couples held a share of the midway lead after rounds of 66 and 75 before ending up in sixth place.
“If I’m healthy enough to swing the golf club, I can play this course,” Couples said, “and for two days I’ve played well.”
Although he no longer drives the ball up with the longest players in the field, Couples said he still hits it far enough to put himself in position to attack the course. He also said he feels comfortable navigating Augusta National’s famously undulating greens.
After opening with a solid if unspectacular 73 in cool, windy conditions, Couples got off to a fast start on Friday with birdies on Nos. 2, 3 and 5. He followed a double bogey at the par-3 sixth with a birdie at No. 7 and pars at Nos. 8 and 9 to turn at 34. His next birdie came at the par-5 13th, where Couples hit his third shot, a wedge that in his words “screamed in low and skipped to a stop” five feet from the hole. He bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17, but he bounced back with a birdie at the 18th set up by an approach that trickled from beyond the flag to within tap-in range.
Mickelson, two months shy of his 47th birthday and win less since his victory at the 2013 Open Championship, had a characteristically up-and-down round. He made five birdies but six bogeys, including several down the stretch at hole Nos. 14, 16 and 17. After hooking his tee shot into the trees on the right on 18 and coming up short of the green on his second shot, Mickelson showed his short-game wizardry with a pitch to 1 foot from the cup to set up a closing par.
On the day, it was his putter that let him down.
“The wind is having more of an effect than the break is, and I struggled a little bit with the putter today,” Mickelson said. “Hopefully, with calm conditions, I’ll get that thing dialed in tomorrow, because I’ve been putting really well. And if I can have a good putting weekend, I’m going to have a good chance.”
One of the most pleasing sights at the Masters is that of an aging past champion and legend of the game finding his old swing within the familiar confines of Augusta National. Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and more recently Bernhard Langer and Mark O’Meara – all have defied their ages by playing their way into contention against competitors easily young enough to be their sons.
The highest Masters finish by a player 57 or older was delivered by Nicklaus, the record six-time champion, who tied for sixth in 1998 at age 58. Rather than fade in the final two rounds, as often happens with such older players, Nicklaus closed with 70-68 to move up five spots on the leader board.
Although far too wise and experienced to get ahead of himself, Couples looks forward to the weekend and to trying to stay in the hunt.
“I’m a competitor, so I like to believe in myself,” he said. “I like to think that I’ve had a lot of good finishes here, and my goal is to keep fighting with these guys.
“I’m not thinking winning this tournament, but I’m thinking continuing to play well and see what happens.”