- The Washington Times - Friday, April 9, 2010

AUGUSTA, Georgia | Ian Poulter of England shot a second straight 4-under 68 Friday to share the halfway lead at the Masters with countryman Lee Westwood, while Tiger Woods loomed two strokes back.

Westwood, seeking his first major title, was one stroke ahead going to No. 18 but drove into the trees left of the fairway, leading to a bogey and a 69. Still, his total of 8-under 136 matches Poulter.

Woods shot a 70 that might have been even more impressive than his opening 68 given the much tougher conditions.

On a day when the tees were pushed back at Augusta National, the pin positions were toughened up and the greens began to firm up, Woods liked his position heading into the weekend.

“Yeah, yeah I do,” he said, flashing a smile that usually strikes fear in his rivals, a smile that hasn’t been seen in the last five months while he dealt with a sex scandal.

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Neither Poulter nor Westwood have won a major title.

Woods has captured golf’s biggest championships 14 times, more than anyone but Jack Nicklaus. Four of those titles have come at Augusta National, and if this keeps up, Woods might be wearing another green jacket Sunday evening.

“It feels good to be back in contention,” Woods said. “I’ve put myself in contention most years here. This year, I’m right there. We’ve got 36 more holes and I’m sure the golf course, they’re not going to make it easy for us.”

While this all feels so normal inside the ropes, this has been a year like no other for Woods. His personal life fell apart after a Thanksgiving might car crash outside his home led to revelations of numerous extramarital affairs.

Massive crowds have followed Woods from hole to hole since play began Thursday, with fans applauding nearly every time he hit the ball. His mother, Kultida, was there again, accompanied by Nike chairman Phil Knight.

His wife, Elin, was not.

Poulter, known as much for his daring fashion sense and bravado as for actual success on the course, moved a little closer to fulfilling the major expectations he’s always had for himself.

Once mocked for saying he felt he could be the world’s second-best player behind Woods, he’ll go the weekend with a two-shot lead on No. 1.

“It’s a good start,” said Poulter, who picked up his first win on U.S. soil earlier this year at the Match Play Championship. “Certainly the way I played today, the number of chances I had on the golf course with the pins as difficult as they are, I was pleased to give myself so many chances. It’s one of the best rounds of golf I’ve played in a while.”

Sixteen players dipped into the 60s during the opening round, when a wind that gusted up in the middle of the day provided about the only defense for the course.

Among those with an early tee time, Poulter was the only one to break 70.

Fred Couples started with a 6-under 66, his lowest round ever in the Masters. At age 50, the oldest player to hold the outright lead after the opening round of the tournament.

He looked more his age on Day Two, finishing with bogeys at the final three holes and four of the last five.

“Not a whole lot of fun at the moment. That’s just the way it is,” said Couples, who’s been bothered by persistent back problems in his career. “I woke up and, to be honest, I didn’t think I’d be able to play very good at all today.”

He knew his chances of becoming golf’s oldest major champion had taken a major blow.

“I needed to be at 5, 6 under to be realistic,” Couples said. “I’m not out of it, but 75 is not a great score.”

Another old-timer struggled, too.

Sixty-year-old Tom Watson followed his stirring run in last year’s British Open with a bogey-free 67 to open the Masters. But he had four bogeys on the front side Friday and made the turn with a 2-over 38, severely damaging any hopes of contending on the weekend as he did at Turnberry.

Woods picked up his only birdie on the front side at the par-5 second, where he chipped up next to the flag for a short putt. He gave the stroke back at No. 4, failing to get up and down after he flew his approach shot over a bunker behind the green.

It would be his only bogey of the day.

The eighth hole provided a telling example of the tougher conditions. With the tee pushed back, Woods needed three shots just to reach the front edge of the green at the par-5 where he made an eagle the previous day. This time, he settled for par.

There were no eagles at all for Woods, a day after he made two in a round for the first time in his Masters career. But he rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt at the par-5 13th and baled himself out for a poor chip with a 15-foot birdie putt at 15. From there, he finished with a string of three straight pars, ruining a chance at another bogey by misreading a putt at 17.

Woods was tied at 138 with one of his playing partners, K.J. Choi (71), and last year’s surprising U.S. Open runner-up, Ricky Barnes (70). Still on the course, Anthony Kim and PGA champion Y.E. Yang were at 5 under, with Phil Mickelson another stroke behind and struggling to make up ground.

Poulter attacked the course by conventional means — three birdies on the four par 5s — but also pulled off birdies at both of the tricky par 3s on the back side. Standing over the treacherous tee shot at No. 12, he went straight at the flag over Rae’s Creek, left himself with a 12-foot putt and rolled it right in.

A bogey-free round ended at No. 18, where Poulter pulled a 5-iron from 212 yards, chipped 7 feet past the cup and missed the putt.

“It was a bit of a shame to have a bogey on that last hole,” he said.

Westwood got off a blistering start with an eagle at No. 2, followed by a birdie at the fourth, the shortest par-4 hole on the course. He made the turn with a 32, then birdied two of the first four holes on the back side to become the first golfer to reach double digits under par.

Woods wore sunglasses between shots and was greeted with applause at nearly every hole. He said he wasn’t trying to make a fashion statement.

“The pollen is just killing my eyes,” he said. “I’ve been sneezing and hacking all week. I’m trying to keep it out of my eyes the best I can.”

No one struggled more than Sandy Lyle, one of four 50-and-older players who broke par in the opening round. The 52-year-old Scotsman soared from a 69 to an 86, making four double-bogeys and a triple-bogey at the 12th.

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