AUGUSTA, Ga. >> Rickie Fowler only wanted to make sure the wind didn’t blow him away over two tough rounds at the Masters. More than just survive today, he posted a 5-under 67 that gave him a share of the lead for the first time in a major.
He has plenty of company.
Sergio Garcia, Thomas Pieters and Charley Hoffman joined him in the largest 36-hole logjam at Augusta National in 44 years.
And the fun is just starting.
The wind began to subside as the pines cast long shadows across the course late in the afternoon, and the forecast is close to perfection for the rest of the weekend, with mild temperatures and hardly any wind.
That won’t make it any easier, as survival gives way to what could be a shootout among some of golf’s biggest stars.
Fifteen players were separated by a mere five shots going into the weekend, a group that includes Adam Scott and Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson, and even 57-year-old Fred Couples.
“I knew the first two days would be tough. We really needed to make sure we could fight through it and stay in the tournament,” Fowler said. “We’re in a good spot. It’s going to be a fun weekend. We’re going to see a lot of good golf and battle it out.”
Fowler began his move early by holing a bunker shot for eagle on the second hole, and even a bogey from the water behind the green on the par-5 15th green didn’t ruin his day. He bounced back with a birdie and stayed in the lead.
Garcia, playing his 70th consecutive major and still looking for that first victory to define an otherwise strong career, wasn’t the least bit bothered by seeing the wrong score for him on a leaderboard behind the 13th green when a penalty for a lost ball was mistakenly attributed to him. He fired a 3-iron across the water and into the wind to the 15th green for a two-putt birdie and shot 69.
Pieters made an eagle on the par-5 13th on his way to a 68. Hoffman was simply happy to join them. His four-shot lead was gone in 11 holes, and he steadied himself the rest of the way to limit the damage to a 75.
The leaders were at 4-under 140.
Hoffman will be in the final group going into the weekend at the Masters for the second time in three years, with one big difference. Two years ago, Hoffman was five shots behind Spieth in what turned out to be a runaway for the young Texan.
This time, the Masters appears to be up for grabs.
The last time there was a four-way tie for the lead at the halfway point of the Masters was in 1973, when Bob Dickson, Gay Brewer, J.C. Snead and Tommy Aaron were tied at 3-under 141. Aaron went on to claim his only green jacket.
Hoffman had a chance to keep his distance until he ran off five bogeys in a six-hole stretch, including a three-putt from 4 feet at the par-5 eighth. His lead was gone when he sprayed another tee shot into the trees at No. 11. He played 1 under the rest of the way, though he still was 10 shots worse than his score on Thursday.
“Everybody was talking about how great that round was yesterday, but it was pretty easy to me — making putts, hitting good, solid golf shots,” Hoffman said. “Today I think I sort of felt how hard it was for everybody else in this wind when you got out of position.”
Garcia only really got out of position on the scoreboard.
His tee shot on No. 10 clipped a tree and shot back into the fairway, while Shane Lowry also hit a tree and couldn’t find it. All three were wearing dark sweaters during the search, and the scorers were confused with who lost the ball. Garcia made bogey, dropping him to 3 under. A few holes later, however, it was changed to 1 under on the scoreboard, and Garcia pointed to the board behind the 13th green.
It eventually was fixed, though that was of no concern to the 37-year-old Spaniard.
“The most important thing is I knew where I stood,” Garcia said.
And he knows the score that everyone talks about — 70 majors as a pro without a victory, and enough close calls to make him wonder if he’ll ever get it done. Garcia has never seriously contended in the Masters, however, so while this is 19th appearance at Augusta, being part of a 36-hole lead is new territory.
It’s too early to think about how a green jacket would fit him — not with 36 holes left, not with so many quality players around him.
“That would be the best thing that could happen to me,” Garcia said.
William McGirt (73) was two shots behind. The group at 1-under 143 included Olympic gold medalist Justin Rose (72), Couples (70) and Spanish rookie Jon Rahm, who had a 70 and looms as a threat to become the first Masters rookie to win since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.
Spieth, undone by a quadruple bogey in the opening round, started slowly and finished strong with birdies on the 16th and 18th for a 69. Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, also had a 69 and joined Spieth at 144.
And right there with them was Mickelson, who can become the oldest Masters champion. Mickelson was one shot behind until he sputtered down the stretch with three bogeys and two par saves over his last five holes for a 73.
“If I can have a good putting weekend, I’m going to have a good chance,” he said.