Tiger Woods holds up the ball after making a birdie...

Tiger Woods holds up the ball after making a birdie on the 10th hole during the second round of the Masters. (Apr. 8, 2011) Credit: AP

AUGUSTA, Ga.

The Masters always stays faithful to its favorites. A former champion's health may balk on him, his putting stroke might desert him from time to time, his personal life may get messy. But Augusta National always stands by him like an old friend.

The course doesn't hold a golfer's age against him (unless he's Doug Ford and insists on trying to play while he's pushing 80). The place values knowledge, which is how Jack Nicklaus won at the implausible age of 46. It explains why Fred Couples is in the hunt at 51.

And it is why Tiger Woods decided to make his comeback from anxious exile here last year.

Woods awoke echoes with a classic charge on Friday. If the weekend goes the way his last 11 holes on Friday did, we will be able to say that Augusta National is where Woods got his mojo back.

"I always love coming here," he said after going 7 under par through the final 11 holes to finish the day with a 66, only three strokes behind leader Rory McIlroy. "I'm told this is my 17th year here. So that's a lot of experience, a lot of memories. I love to play here."

A cautionary note: We have seen false glimpses before. We thought Woods was back when he had a great third-round 66 in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in June, but he didn't win that week or any week since.

But Friday did seem different. The Masters vibrated as Woods hit shots near flags on the par-3 sixth and par-4 14th. People loved it when he hit out of the pine needles on No. 11 and two-putted for his toughest par. Roars greeted his fist pumps on that hole and on No. 18 -- a true Tiger hole, with a drive to the right, a cut shot into the green and a patient, solid birdie putt.

"Absolutely, we definitely could feel that, and it was fun," he said of the reaction at what became his de facto home course when he first won the Masters at 21 in 1997.

He played Augusta Friday like he owned it, or co-owned it with Couples.

The senior golfer actually has a shot at catching second-round leader Rory McIlroy, 21, even though Couples has liniment bottles older than McIlroy. He is old enough to have played in Nicklaus' win 25 years ago and wise enough to know what a Couples win would look like on Sunday.

"It would be the biggest upset in golf history," he said.

Then again, if a 51-year-old with a chronic bad back -- a guy who recognizes Eisenhower as a president and not just a cabin on the club grounds -- can shoot 4-under par 68 as he did Friday to reach 5 under with half a Masters to go, what isn't possible?

"I mean, can I win? Of course. Am I looking forward to playing tomorrow? Yeah, you'd better believe it," said the man who has the best career scoring average among golfers who have played 100 or more Masters rounds.

"Well, I mean, I've played it probably 200 times," said the 51-year-old, who, like Woods, will keep playing it as long as he can.

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