Danny Willett faced a long wait to present his successor as Masters champion with a green jacket, but was at least well placed to watch a potentially thrilling shootout at Augusta National.
Spain's Sergio Garcia, who has recorded 22 top-10 finishes in majors without tasting victory, shared the halfway lead on four under par with Ryder Cup team-mate Thomas Pieters, first-round leader Charley Hoffman and Rickie Fowler.
But on a star-studded leaderboard, the top 15 players were separated by just five shots and included Olympic gold medallist Justin Rose, the 57-year-old 1992 champion Fred Couples and 22-year-old rising star Jon Rahm on one under.
Jordan Spieth, who carded a quadruple-bogey nine on the 15th in the first round, birdied three of his last six holes to finish level par alongside Adam Scott and Phil Mickelson, who is seeking to surpass Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters champion with a fourth victory.
Rory McIlroy was a shot further back in pursuit of the win he needs to complete the career grand slam, with Martin Kaymer on two over after improving 10 shots on his opening 78.
Willett's own 78 meant he became the first defending champion to miss the cut since 2004, with the damage done by a demoralising quadruple-bogey eight on the first.
''It's been a tricky 12 months and we haven't played great golf, but by the same token if you look at the career we've had, we've not really had a slump in form in two years,'' Willett said.
''We've had two fabulous years and then you have a little bit of a downturn and it feels like the world is coming to an end. Playing Augusta at the weekend would be nice with the (good) weather coming in, but we had that in our own hands and unfortunately we let that slip.''
After two days of strong winds the forecast for the weekend was for much calmer and warmer conditions, with Garcia having the added incentive of being able to claim a first major title on Sunday, which would have been the 60th birthday of two-time champion and fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros.
After finishing 12th here in 2012 the 37-year-old claimed he was not good enough to win a major, but said on Friday: "'I was frustrated then but I probably didn't accept things as well as I should have,'' he said.
''I've shown myself many times after that I can contend and I truly feel I can not only win one (major) but more than one."
McIlroy was targeting a fast start in round three to erase the memory of a stroke of bad luck on the 18th, when his approach clattered into the pin and rebounded 20 yards off the green.
The four-time major winner, who hit a superb pitch to three feet but missed the par putt, said: ''These things happen. I still feel like I'm right in this tournament.
''If I can put together a 67 or a 66 on Saturday, I feel like I'll be right in there for Sunday.''