Justin Rose led a steady procession of European golfers towards springtime’s golfing summit as the Englishman, Germany’s Alex Cejka and José Maria Olazábal of Spain filled the first three places at the halfway stage of the 68th Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia.
The 23 year old two-time winner on The European Tour International Schedule consolidated his position as tournament leader by following his scintillating opening 67 with a solid, no-risk 71 for a two round total of 138, six under par.
Rose retained the two stroke lead he held overnight, while Cejka and Olazábal made impressive progress with rounds of 70 and 69 respectively for a four under par total of 140. It is the first time in the Masters that three European-born players have held sway over the field after 36 holes.
A total of 16 European Tour Members from a starting list of 30 made the halfway cut, which fell at 148, four over par with exactly 44 players contesting the last two rounds. Among those who missed out on weekend activity were past winners, Nick Faldo of England and Welshman, Ian Woosnam.
However Rose goes into the third round on top of the world, and he conceded that his game plan had been to play conservatively and it was reflected in a round containing one bogey and two birdies. He explained: “I didn’t want to put myself under pressure in terms of having to scramble for pars. I was happy that I did that.
“I’m just enjoying playing well. It’s nice to be up at the top of the leaderboard and be at the right end of the golf tournament, especially a golf tournament of this stature. Can I win from here? I believe I can.”
Lurking in the rarified atmosphere of the Augusta leaderboard is a new experience for 34 year old Cejka, but a familiar one for Olazábal, who won Green Jackets in 1994 and again in 1999.
Both players managed to get within a stroke of Rose, but bogeys at the 18th dropped them two behind. Cejka admitted: “I think I’ve done a good job 70. Four under is a good position for the weekend.”
The man who fled the Czech Republic with his father as a nine year old and became a refugee in Germany, has made steady progress in the last year and currently lies 52nd on the Official World Golf Ranking.
Cejka last played in the event in 1996 and admitted: “I think my game has improved in the eight years since then. I think mentally especially. I’ve got more experience now whereas 1996 was my first Major. I was young. I was wild. Then suddenly I was playing with those great players and it was a great experience.”
Olazábal, meanwhile, made spectacular rather than steady progress towards the lead with a driver, three iron and one putt for an eagle on the 13th followed by birdies on the 14th and 15th.
The two-time Champion commented: “It must be something about this place! I don’t feel much different from how I felt last week. Parts of the game are pretty much the same, but every time I come here I feel at peace with myself.
“Maybe the course fits my game. Knowledge of the golf course is important and it allows you to chip and putt around the greens. That’s the only reason I can find to explain it.”
Olazábal was the last European to win the Masters Tournament five years ago and he said: “It would be nice to have another European win the tournament. I think Justin Rose is a very steady player. I know he’s long off the tee and he hits high shots, which favours this course. It’s up to him – if he’s having a good week on the greens he’s going to be up there.”
Paul Casey set out in pursuit of his friend and fellow Englishman, Rose, in the second round. Casey fired a second round 69 to reach the halfway point on 144, level par, before first round leader Rose had embarked on Day Two.
The 26 year old, who has partnered Rose in the last two World Golf Championships – World Cup events, enjoyed the satisfying experience of birdieing all three holes round the fiendish stretch of the course known the world over as Amen Corner.
Those three birdies and another at the 15th moved the Masters debutant into red figures – under par – for the tournament, but he three putted the 18th from just 18 feet to finish a satisfactory day five behind Rose, who led by two shots after the first round after a 67.
Casey, who had bogeyed the tenth, holed from eight feet at the 11th, 14 feet at the 12th and two putted both the 13th and 15th to get on a roll. He admitted: “It was annoying to bogey the last but I am very, very happy with a 69. I would have loved a 68 but 69 was my target and I am looking forward to the weekend now.
“At four over par my plan was just to keep trying to put the ball in the right places and give myself birdie putts. I am glad I resisted the temptation to fire at the pins.”
Casey added: “People told me this course should suit me and I felt that, too, when I came here two weeks ago. Everything in my game suits this place and if I putt well I can shoot low numbers.”
The sight of his compatriot at the top of the leaderboard pleased Casey, who said: “It is nice to see Justin playing well – it’s somebody for me to chase! It’s also good to see a lot of European names on the leaderboard and, yes, a European win is a possibility.
“Justin has the experience to challenge and I would like to see my own name up there on the leaderboard by tomorrow night.”
England’s Ian Poulter, who shot a 75 on his first competitive round over Augusta National, improved by two shots withy a 73 for 148, four over par. He admitted; “It was a day of many, many, many missed chances. I played fantastic but shaved the hole and horseshoed out a few times. Augusta is as tough as I thought it would be. Fantastic. What a place to come and play golf.”
Paul Lawrie, who also won a Major Championship in the same year as Olazábal, broke par for the first time in 12 rounds at Augusta National with a two under par 70 to follow his opening 77 for 147.
“This is my fifth visit here and the first time I’ve broken par” said the Scot. “I wasn’t thinking about trying to make the cut. I am here for better things, but there isn’t another course which demands so much precision and that is part of the mystique of the place.”
Sandy Lyle, the 1988 Champion, made the cut for the first since Olazábal’s victory procession in 1999 and admitted: “I am chuffed to bits. I won’t be watching on television at the weekend for a change!”
There were mixed fortunes for Ireland, with Padraig Harrington squeezing through on the mark of 148, but Darren Clarke missed out on 149 after a round of 79. He said: "Pathetic is too polite a way of putting how I played."
Harrington observed after a second successive 74: "It was a bit of a grind at the end because of the position I put myself in. But I can still get something going. Ten shots is not ridiculous."
European Ryder Cup Captain, Bernhard Langer of Germany, added a 73 to his opening 71 and the two-time Champion said: "I left a couple of shots out there. I could have been two or three better."