AUGUSTA, Ga. — The buzz was back Friday at Augusta National, loud as ever.
It wasn’t from any of the patrons because they’re not allowed in this most usual Masters in November. It came from the constant humming of motors of the sub-air system beneath the soft turf in an attempt to make the course a little firmer, a lot more like a typical Masters in April.
“You have to really throw all the past knowledge out the window this week, as weird as it is,” said Justin Thomas, who hit a few short-game shots that required trust and imagination for rounds of 66-69.
That gave Thomas a share of the lead with Dustin Johnson (65-70), Cameron Smith (67-68) and Abraham Ancer (68-67), a Masters rookie who doesn’t know this course any other way.
“A lot of the history and things that you know about the golf course, it can sometimes hurt you this week because of what you’re used to,” Thomas said. “But at the end of the day, it is a lot softer and a lot more scorable.”
Progress could be measured in greens that began to pick up some pace and scoring that didn’t get out of control.
Johnson, looking every bit like the No. 1 player in the world, had four birdies on the back nine in the morning for a 65, breaking by two shots his best round at Augusta. He birdied his way through Amen Corner at the start of his second round and quickly reached 10 under.
Johnson was slowed by a three-putt bogey on the 14th and a 3-iron that caught enough of a gust to come up short on the par-5 15th and roll back into the water, leading to another bogey.
He finished with a birdie for a 70 and was atop the leaderboard with the others at 9-under 135 when the second round was halted by darkness, a product of a weather delay at the start of the tournament that has put the Masters behind schedule.
The forecast for the weekend is favorable, warm and mostly sunny.
“I think it can firm up a little bit, but it’s going to be tough for it to get firm,” Johnson said. “I think it’s going to be soft enough to where you’re going to have to attack the golf course and play aggressive and keep swinging like I am. I like where I’m at. I like my position.”
Still to be determined is what that position will be. Hideki Matsuyama was at 8 with three holes remaining, while Jon Rahm was at 8 under and had six holes left, including both par 5s on the back nine.
Another Masters rookie, Sungjae Im (70), was in the group another shot behind that included Patrick Cantlay (66), who contended for the green jacket last year. Cantlay was among four players who had 66, the lowest score when play was stopped for the night.
Among those still on the course was Tiger Woods, stuck in neutral on a day when the greens picked up a little more speed and the autumn leaves shook slightly with some wind. Bryson DeChambeau was struggling to make the cut after a lost ball that led to a triple bogey.
What two days have shown is that Masters experience only goes so far on a soft course with rye grass that isn’t grown in quite the way it usually is in April.
Thomas served up one example from Friday morning. He was well left of the 15th green in two with the pin to the right, leaving a pitch that typically is nearly impossible to hit close. He went with a hard, low pitch that hit the brakes at the hole and spun gently to tap-in range for birdie.
“I had to trust that I just had to gas it and hit it pretty hard and it was going to spin,” Thomas said. “Balls are making pitch marks with chip shots and pitch shots.”
Woods left the course Thursday with only three players ahead of him. He was tied for 10th when the first round ended, and he was tied for 22nd when he left Friday night with two birdies on the par 5s and bogeys on the third and seventh, the latter from a tee shot close enough to the Georgia pines that his only shot was to hit a runner into the front bunker.
DeChambeau, the betting favorite coming into the week because of his enormous bulk and power off the tee, took a big swing on No. 3 and never found the ball. With the altitude on his shots, it could have buried under the soft turf. Either way, he went back to the tee and drove in about the same spot, made a mess of his flop shot and took a triple bogey.
He followed with two more bogeys but was in good position for a birdie to get back to even par for the tournament.
The cut is top 50 and ties, and among those who will be sticking around are young and old — 23-year-old U.S. Amateur runner-up John Augenstein and 63-year-old Bernhard Langer. The two-time Masters champion shot 68 in the morning on a long, soft course. He followed with a 73 and will be the oldest player to make the cut at Augusta National.
“It actually makes me feel older when I play with these young guys and I see how far they hit it and how short I hit it,” Langer said. “I like this golf course. I think I know how to get around it, even though I hit very long clubs. But it’s certainly not easy.”
It was plenty hard for Rory McIlroy, who opened with a 75 and was in danger of the weekend off until he rallied with a 66 to at least get back in the mix in his pursuit of the final leg of the career Grand Slam.