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A booming surprise: Couples in the lead at Masters

Jason Dufner puts on a wool cap before putting on the fourth green during the second round of the Masters golf tournament Friday, April 6, 2012, in Augusta, Ga.
Jason Dufner puts on a wool cap before putting on the fourth green during the second round of the Masters golf tournament Friday, April 6, 2012, in Augusta, Ga.
David J. Phillip, Associated Press

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The heating pad and painkillers are as key to this 52-year-old's game as the smooth swing and easygoing stride he uses to amble around the course these days.

But before people pass off Freddie Couples and his aching back as nothing more than a nice story for a Friday at the Masters, the co-leader at the midway point wants to clear things up.

"Can I win?" Couples said after turning back the clock and playing his way to a surprising second-round lead at Augusta National. "Yeah, I believe I can. Yes."

On a day of sublime, spin-filled shotmaking at his favorite golf course, Couples made seven birdies and shot 5-under 67 to share the lead with PGA runner-up Jason Dufner.

They'll tee off in the final pairing Saturday, one who played the chilly second round in a stocking cap, the other as recognizable to golf fans as Tiger, Phil or Rory, even if that thick shock of hair has morphed from black, to salt-and-pepper, and now all the way to gray.

"Pretty bizarre," Couples said when asked to describe his day.

Well, maybe not that bizarre.

Couples led this tournament after the first round two years ago and was in the top 10 heading into the weekend last year.

After his latest one for the aged, he said he was asked how it felt to have the lowest career scoring average in Masters history, even better than Jack Nicklaus, who in 1986 became the oldest player to win the tournament at 46.

"I said, 'Well, I don't know the last year he played, but his scores kept going up a little bit and mine will be doing that shortly," Couples said. "But today was not one of those days."

Not by a long shot.

Couples kick-started his magical day by hitting a fairway bunker shot on No. 3 to 4 feet for his first birdie. He was pin high and 4 feet away again on No. 4 for the next birdie, and suddenly, he was doing more than playing ceremonial golf — something he has always desperately wanted to avoid.

He hit a hybrid into the 15th green to 25 feet and barely missed the eagle putt. When he rolled in an 18-footer on 16 to get to 5 under, he pumped his fist and yelled "Bam."

Yes, folks, "Boom-Boom" is back in the mix.

"It doesn't surprise me," said Tom Watson, who nearly won the British Open three years ago at 59. "He hits the ball a long way, and he knows how to play this golf course, and he did it a couple years ago."

Couples closed out his day by salvaging par on No. 18 with a chip from in front of the green that stopped, checked up and spun backward to about 2 feet for a stress-free putt. He doffed his cap, raised both fists and flashed that familiar wide smile, knowing he'd be sleeping in late Saturday — and sleeping on the lead.

What might it take to finish the thing off?

"A lot more birdies, a lot more made putts," he said. Maybe a painkiller or two.

He'll have plenty of company near the top of the leaderboard.

It starts with Dufner, who lost a five-shot lead with four holes to play at last year's PGA Championship, then lost in the playoff to Keegan Bradley.

"Didn't quite work out, but carried over into this year," Dufner said. "It gave me confidence that I can compete and play at a high level out here and do really nice things."

A shot back is a group of five that includes Rory McIlory, looking to atone for his collapse here last year; Lee Westwood, in the running as best player to never win a major; and Sergio Garcia, who once owned that title but has since relinquished it — not because he finally won one, but because his game declined as he moved from his 20s to his 30s.

"I don't know if I'm ready to win. We'll see," Garcia said. "I wish I could tell you I'm ready to win, but I really don't know. So I'm just going to give it my best try, and you know, hopefully that will be good."

Bubba Watson and Louis Oosthuizen are the others in the tie for third, with Paul Lawrie, Matt Kuchar and Miguel Angel Jimenez another shot back at 3 under.

Phil Mickelson is lurking at 2-under par after a round of 4-under 68.

"Tomorrow will be a critical day," he said.

It sure will be for Tiger Woods, who opened his second round with two birdies over the first three holes but gave that all back and more. He struggled with his swing for the second straight day and shot 3-over 75 and walked off the course seemingly too frustrated to be frustrated. Or maybe he'd just worked it all out on the course, cursing, tossing clubs and even kicking one after a bad tee shot on 16.

He described his biggest problem as, "Not having much. I didn't have it today with my swing, unfortunately. I just had to hang in there and be patient."

Couples knows all about that. A day that began with him thinking to himself "What the hell?" and "What do I have to lose?" turned into something much more.

"Very shocking," he said, "and it was a great day."