Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Kevin Na were tied for the lead after the second round in The Players Championship at Sawgrass in Florida.
Johnson, who claimed the Green Jacket at the Masters tournament in 2007, took advantage of Martin Laird’s poor finish to set a clubhouse target that only Kuchar and Na were able to reach.
Laird, whose opening 65 matched that of England’s Ian Poulter, moved his score to ten under par after carding five birdies and two bogeys in his opening 15 holes.
However, a disappointing end - the Scot dropped four shots on the last three - paved the way for Johnson’s charge; he followed up his opening 70 with an outstanding 66 - an effort matched today by Blake Adams and John Huh.
Kuchar, meanwhile, was typically solid, carding just one bogey in a round of 68 - the highlights of which were a 45 foot birdie putt on the par three 13th and an excellent up and down save two holes later.
Na endured more of a mixed round, only for a birdie on 17 to secure his place at the top of the leaderboard.
A shot further back was Harris English, while a five strong group - including Laird and Brian Davis - were tied on six under
Reflecting on finding the water at 16 to start his slide, Laird said: “That's what this course will do to you. I got a bit greedy with a four iron to the 16th - it was a stupid shot.
“But I'm still well in it. I'd have taken my position before the start.”
Laird’s annoyance earlier in the day was comparable to that initially endured by Poulter.
Starting on seven under, the Englishman’s hopes were high, yet a double bogey on the tenth - his starting hole - set the tone for a frustrating front nine.
Poulter repeated the trick two holes later followed by a bogey on 15 - though he did claw a shot back with a birdie on the next and subsequently turn on three under.
The Englishman then showed impressive resolve to par the back nine and finish on three under.
Poulter’s countrymen Luke Donald and Lee Westwood scented the opportunity to move to the summit of the World Rankings after current leader Rory McIlroy carded a 76.
The Ulsterman began with a level par 72, but ended the day on four over - a score that ensured he missed the cut.
McIlroy was understandably disappointed with his efforts, yet set his sights on the big tournaments to come - notably the BMW PGA Championship at the Wentworth Club.
“There's something about this course I can't quite get to grips with,” said the Northern Irishman. “It's disappointing - I'm not going to lie.
“I've been playing well for the last 12 months. This is my first missed cut for a year. I'll get ready now for the big tournaments coming up.”
McIlroy's early exit gave Westwood and Donald the opportunity to become World Number One; the latter would manage that with a top four finish, while the former needs to emerge victorious and hope his compatriot does not come second.
Donald, beginning on the tenth, looked imperious as he eagled the 16th and second, although his joy was tempered by bogeys on three of the next five holes.
That run derailed a round that promised much, yet he did finish three under after birdieing the last - an effort that Westwood matched to close on the same score.
“It could have been a special round,” said Donald. “I threw in a couple of bad swings, but 69 is not a bad score. I am quietly optimistic. I think this course is only going to get tougher and eight or nine under could be a good score come Sunday.”
Tim Clark, a winner in this competition two years ago, enjoyed a memorable moment when holing his second shot out of the bunker on the par four seventh.
That left the South African in good shape to charge into contention; he eventually handed in a 70 to close on three under.
Germany’s Martin Kaymer struck a 69 to atone for an opening round of 73 and close on two under alongside Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods.