Augusta finished playing nice with field

4/9/2010 - Golf Ian Poulter Lee Westwood + more

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Overnight rain washed away that pesky pollen Friday, but it did little to take the bite out of Augusta National. Allergy sufferers were relieved, competitors in the Masters not so much.

As is often the case at the storied venue that serves as the home to the first major championship of the year, it is never wise to get too comfortable.

"The beautiful thing about this golf course is that there's a tragedy awaiting you just about on every hole," two-time Masters winner Tom Watson said. "It's always there. And you always know it. And that's what can happen here. It's never over."

Stormy weather gave way to brilliant sunshine, a beautiful day for golf.

The pleasant conditions, however, were misleading. Pins were placed in more precarious positions than they were in the opening round. A cool breeze blew from a different direction.

Augusta National did what it often does and likely will continue to do: exasperate and fascinate.

"About as tough as I've seen," Kenny Perry said of Friday's conditions. "It was a lot tougher today than any [round] of last year."

A relatively simple first-round setup led to 31 scores below par, including 16 players shooting in the 60s. On Friday, the Augusta stroke average went up by more than a shot, and Ian Poulter figured it was no coincidence.

"It was windier yesterday, but the pin locations today were a lot more difficult," said Poulter, who is tied for the lead with fellow Englishman Lee Westwood. "I think the number of scores under par [is] probably a factor in some of those pins being tucked where they were. And so I would have said it was playing a lot tougher than yesterday, for sure."

Whether the powers that be purposely set out to make their course more challenging is a subject for debate, but it is clear the layout was easier in the opening round, when the pins were in friendlier positions, the tees moved up, the wind helping.

The apparent theory: Give them a break with bad weather forecast.

But the storms didn't arrive until after play was completed, and you knew the second round would not be nearly as easy.

"They definitely stepped things up," said three-time Masters winner and CBS analyst Nick Faldo. "Day 1, I saw about nine tame hole locations; today, only three or four. I think the moisture [in the greens] will be the factor overnight. We've got perfect weather guaranteed for the weekend, and I think they will firm things up slightly."

There were 17 subpar scores Friday but just three in the 60s. After Fred Couples led the field with a 66 on Thursday, the best anyone could do was 68 on Friday -- Poulter and Chad Campbell, who amazingly bounced back from a first-round 79 to make the cut. The only other score in the 60s was a 69 by Westwood.

"It tests you to the limit," Westwood said.

A 20-time winner on the European Tour, Westwood missed the Watson-Stewart Cink playoff by 1 stroke at last year's British Open when he three-putted the final green.

But this week he has put himself in good position to win his first major title, as has Poulter, who captured the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in February.

They are two shots ahead of Tiger Woods, K.J. Choi, Ricky Barnes, Anthony Kim and Phil Mickelson.

That is a leaderboard packed with some firepower, and one of those names, if history holds, will be donning a green jacket in Sunday's gloaming.

You have to go back to 1998, when Mark O'Meara was tied for ninth through 36 holes, to find a winner who came from outside the top five at the halfway point of the Masters.

And you have to go all the way back to Jack Nicklaus in 1986 to find a player who has come from outside the top 10 after Friday's play to win the tournament.

Nothing is ever assured in golf, of course. History is often made, trends broken. Woods, for one, finally broke 70 in the first round of the Masters. It took him just 16 tries. An amateur -- Italy's Matteo Manassero in this case -- made the cut for the first time in five years.

But get yourself out of the top five by Friday night, and you do so at your own peril.

The Masters is filled with stories of weekend heroics, but in truth, they are rare. And the brutish nature of the 7,450-yard course makes such charges even more unlikely.

Old champions Couples (75) and Watson (74) fell back Friday after terrific opening rounds that put them at the top of the leaderboard.

Ernie Els, with two recent victories in Florida, finds himself 8 strokes behind after hitting a ball in the water at the 15th hole. Padraig Harrington is headed home to Ireland after a surprising missed cut. Defending champion Angel Cabrera needed to birdie the 18th just to make the cut on the number.

So the weekend, most likely, will boil down to just a handful of players, with the two at the top trying to stop a couple of other unlikely streaks.

No European has won the Masters since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999, no Englishman since Nick Faldo in 1996.

Then there is Woods, who hasn't won here since 2005, his longest stretch without a victory at Augusta National. That he is even in this position is another story altogether.

The goal for Saturday? Get into the final pairing for the last round, no matter the conditions, no matter the treachery.

Only once since 1990 -- Zach Johnson in 2007 -- has the winner of the Masters not come from the final Sunday twosome, meaning it is wise not to mess with history.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.