Only two closing birdies from Thomas Bjorn – to go with two earlier eagles - prevented American Chris DiMarco from grabbing the biggest halfway lead in Masters history today.
DiMarco, leaving fellow overnight leaders David Howell and Luke Donald in his wake, marched into a six-stroke lead en route to a sparkling second successive 67.
But Bjorn, who this time last year was “fighting demons” and shot 80-77 around Augusta, also produced a 67 and so went into the third round after a short break on six under par, four behind.
The bad news for DiMarco was that in third place two strokes further back was three-time champion Tiger Woods, who after struggling like crazy and lying joint 33rd after an opening 74, burst through with a best-of-the-week 66.
Howell’s 69 – somewhat disappointing after he resumed five under for the round with 10 to play – left him in a tie for fourth with world number one Vijay Singh, who could add only a 73 to his opening 68, but Donald fell away to 17th with a 77.
As for the other two members of golf’s ‘Fab Four’, defending champion Phil Mickelson’s 72 for two under put him joint sixth with American amateur champion Ryan Moore and Australian Mark Hensby, but last year’s runner-up Ernie Els scraped into the final 36 holes with nothing to spare on four over.
Meanwhile, an emotional Jack Nicklaus missed the halfway cut on nine over following a 76 and said it was almost certainly his final Masters.
“I lost it there coming up the last,” said the 65-year-old six-time winner, given a similar ovation to that which greeted Arnold Palmer for his 50th and last appearance 12 months ago.
“I have the right to change my mind, but I don’t think that’s going to happen. I knew it was going to be my last time – it’s too tough for me. I can’t do this.”
He confirmed he will make his Open farewell at St Andrews in July.
DiMarco, who was the joint 54-hole leader with Mickelson last year and shot 76, got off on exactly the right note with a birdie at the second.
Further birdies at the eighth and ninth meant an outward 33, then the 36-year-old, who lost a play-off to Singh for the US PGA in August, picked up more shots on the 15th and 16th.
The record halfway lead is five shots by Herman Keiser in 1946, Nicklaus in 1975 and Ray Floyd a year later. All three went on to win.
Bjorn eagled the 13th with a fairway wood to three feet and the 15th with a four-iron to within 12 inches to turn in 33 and denied DiMarco a new mark by holing 10-foot birdie putts on the eighth and ninth.
In five previous visits he has never done better than 18th but two years ago, of course, he lost the Open at Sandwich to Ben Curtis from three ahead with four to play.
The Surrey-based Dane has been desperate for a chance to make amends ever since.
“It’s not that easy when you are out in the last few groups because the tension gets up,” he said. “It was phenomenal golf to shoot 10 under, but all you can is focus on your own game.”
Play had been suspended for the day at lunchtime on Friday and when Howell returned to the 18th green – his ninth – the ball-marker he had left there was gone.
The spot had to be agreed with his two playing partners and to a loud cheer from his father – one of 11 family and friends staying with him for the week and helping to relax him – Howell made the seven-footer for a brilliant back-nine 31, only two off the Masters record.
He saved a good par on the first after missing the green, but the first of the three-putts cost him a six at the 575-yard second and after making a 12-footer on the next to return to five under he slipped up on the seventh and eighth greens as well.
The short sixth was interesting. Howell was on the green, but because of the contours of the wickedly sloping green he chose a wedge rather than putter and salvaged his par.
“That was a bit nerve-wracking,” he said.
“My worst shot was my lob wedge to the eighth. It didn’t get it far enough - a schoolboy error, as they say.
“All my birdies came in one fell swoop yesterday (five in seven holes), but you can’t knock a 69 here any day. It’s a good round, but I just need to the cut the silly mistakes out.”
Howell’s presence on the leaderboard had suddenly got Swedish television interested bizarrely.
That was because in his Friday press conference he was asked where was from and he replied: “Swindon in England”. However, that was transcribed as “Sweden and England”.
With Jesper Parnevik, Fredrik Jacobson and Joakim Haeggman struggling a Swedish television producer asked what Howell’s connection was and had to have the error pointed out to him.
Singh was playing behind Mickelson again the day after their spat over spike marks on a green.
The Fijian spoke to officials yesterday and they then approached Mickelson on the course to see if he was the culprit.
No problem was found with the left-hander’s spikes, but he took umbrage at the way it was handled and confronted Singh back in the locker room when play was suspended.
“I was extremely distracted and would have appreciated if it would have been handled differently or after the round,” said Mickelson in a statement after the story leaked out.
“On the 13th hole two officials approached me at two different times. They were sent by Vijay to check my spikes because he felt they were unduly damaging the greens.
“After sitting in the locker room for a while I heard Vijay talk to other players about it and I confronted him.
“He expressed his concerns. I expressed my disappointment with the way it was handled. I believe everything is fine now.”