AUGUSTA, Ga. — To most every player at the Masters Tournament, the 530-yard, water-guarded hole called Firethorn is a back-nine destination for earning back a stroke. To Bernd Wiesberger, that hole, No. 15 at Augusta National Golf Club, can teeter toward the nightmarish.
In November, it dealt him a double bogey. On Thursday, his putt for eagle rolled and rolled and rolled across some of the firmest greens in Masters memory before it slipped clear into the drink. And so there Wiesberger stood on Friday, having gained four shots before coming upon the pine-lined nemesis that had left him “a little bit too excited” a day earlier.
His first shot on Friday went 305 yards and landed in the rough. The second vaulted his ball beyond the tree canopy. The third moved him onto the green, positioning Wiesberger for a 6-foot putt that, mercifully, did not have him aiming toward water. Birdie.
“I’ve been playing really solid golf yesterday and today, obviously,” said Wiesberger, an Austrian whose second-round six-under-par 66 matched Tony Finau for the day’s best score and by sundown had him in a six-way tie for sixth place that also included Finau. “Just today, I kept the mistakes off the card.”
But there were plenty of other shots that went wayward elsewhere on the course as the cut, set for the second consecutive year at the lowest 50 scores plus ties, loomed.
Dustin Johnson, the 2020 champion, struggled with his putting and, at five over par across two days, failed to move into Saturday’s third round. Rory McIlroy, who arrived at Augusta National in search of the Masters victory he needs to complete a career Grand Slam, logged a double bogey at No. 10 and did not advance. Brooks Koepka, who is ranked No. 14 in the world, faltered and did not make the cut, nor did Sungjae Im, who finished second in November’s tournament, which organizers had postponed from April because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Augusta National played far differently back then, offering players a soft course on which 43 golfers finished below par and Johnson won at 20 under, a tournament record. The grounds have proved far more vicious this week, with one player after the next declaring the greens — famously fast and firm — more perilous than they had ever seen them.
Not that Augusta National was concerned. “We have the golf course where we want it,” its chairman, Fred S. Ridley, said this week.
Justin Rose, who entered Friday with a four-stroke lead, remained atop the field after shooting a 72. But his advantage narrowed to a single shot on a day when he had three fewer birdies than in his opening round and doubled, to four, the number of bogeys.
“I think it was just a classic day at Augusta National when you’re slightly off,” Rose said. “You can be a foot or two out on certain occasions and you end up struggling.”
Will Zalatoris, who is aiming to become the first person to win his Masters debut since Fuzzy Zoeller did it in 1979, birdied the final three holes to climb into second place, a shot behind Rose and alongside Brian Harman, who made birdie on No. 18 when his second shot rolled downward and set up a 10-foot putt that had just enough power.
Marc Leishman and Jordan Spieth were tied in fourth place, while Cameron Champ, Si Woo Kim, Hideki Matsuyama and Justin Thomas joined Finau and Wiesberger in sixth. (Augusta National said Friday evening that Matthew Wolff, who was not in contention, had been disqualified after he submitted a scorecard with an inaccurate tally for No. 17.)
Finau’s six-stroke swing into the tournament’s upper ranks began early in his round, when he sized up the second hole, a par-5 that, at 575 yards, is the longest on the course. He was 8 feet from the pin after a pair of strokes. His putt slid right, tracing a crescent on its way toward an eagle.
With the predicted rain looking less likely before the start of Saturday’s round, Finau professed himself unbothered by the conditions that had thrilled and terrified others.
“I really like the conditions fast and firm,” said Finau, who finished in a tie for fifth at the 2019 Masters, his best showing at Augusta National. “With my ball flight, I think it’s a big advantage. I put plenty of spin on it. I enjoy the golf course the way it’s playing — I guess I wouldn’t say enjoy, but I think it’s a good setup for me.”
Johnson was another story: a defending champion who three-putted six times in two days, but whose demise this week was not quite sealed until late in his Friday round. His second shot on Friday at No. 15, the hole that had so frustrated Wiesberger, wound up in the water and fueled a bogey there. Two holes later, his second shot lifted him onto the green — before a pair of putts streaked past the pin. Adding to the turmoil, his first putt fell short on No. 18.
“I don’t know,” he said afterward. “I just didn’t have a good beat on the speed the last two days.”
He will still be at the club this weekend, of course, to drape the green jacket on someone else. It has happened recently: Johnson became the third reigning winner to miss the cut in five years, after Danny Willett and Sergio García stumbled.
“I like this golf course,” Johnson said after his round. “I feel like I play it very well. I just didn’t putt very good. It’s pretty simple.”