AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Abraham Ancer, Cameron Smith and Sungjae Im were rookies on the International team that lost the Presidents Cup to the United States.
Now, they’re in contention at the Masters.
Ancer and Smith were among four players tied on Friday at 9-under par, while Im was in a group of four one stroke back. (Four dozen player were unable to finish the second round because of darkness.)
“We’ve all become best of mates that week, and it’s good to see them guys right up there,” Smith said after shooting 68 on the heels of an opening-round 67. “We were giving each other fisties on the back there, so it was good.”
Ancer, who is from Mexico, and the South Korean Im went 3-1-1 in the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne in December. Smith, of Australia, posted a record of 1-1-1.
Im beat U.S. Open champion Gary Woodland in singles and Smith took down Justin Thomas. Ancer had to face Tiger Woods, who was at his best and needed 16 holes for the victory.
The Americans trailed for each of the first four sessions before rallying on the final day to beat an International team that had seven rookies in all.
“The amount of pressure that you feel there, the excitement, every putt counts so much,” Ancer said. “That whole week was big for me and my career. I felt like it’s helped me tremendously.”
Smith is playing in the Masters for the fourth time — he finished tied for fifth in 2018 — while Ancer and Im are making their debuts. Ancer said he had never been to the course until a practice session last week, when he played 27 holes with a member.
When he got the Masters invitation, Ancer framed it hung it in his living room.
“It’s something that I dreamt since I was a little kid to play here,” he said.
Danny Willett turned in his best round ever at the Masters, shooting a 6-under 66 that even eclipsed the final round of his improbable victory in 2016.
It was certainly a far cry from his last three appearances at Augusta National.
Since winning the green jacket in a tournament best known for Jordan Spieth’s collapse, Willett has missed the cut each time. The 33-year-old Englishman never even broke par in a round.
But this year, Willett opened with a 71 and followed up with an even better score Friday. He eclipsed his previous personal best of 67, which carried him to victory on Sunday four years ago.
“Physically, I’m probably as good as I ever have been,” he said. “We’re working pretty hard to keep that stuff going, and then that obviously allows you to practice a little more, train a little bit harder, train a little bit better, and we’re in a good place.”
Willett cracked his driver finishing up the first round in the morning. He wasn’t comfortable with the repair, so he relied strictly on a 3-wood in the afternoon.
It worked out just fine. Willett completed his round and was just two shots off the lead when play was suspended.
“I’ve got some nice memories, obviously, around this place, and it’s been really tough the last few years missing out here,” he said. “Real nice show today, especially after that start, to fight back to be playing the weekend here, which is a place that’s real close to my heart.”
Former Masters champion Adam Scott was motoring along at 4 under as he finished up his first round, and he figured to get even closer to the lead as he approached the par-5 15th.
And that’s where it went all wrong, starting with a shot that hit the front of the green and rolled back into the water.
“The first mistake was not getting the first ball over the water well enough,” Scott said. “Unfortunately, I think we hit the wrong club there, but then compound that with a bad break. It was a good shot.”
His fourth shot hit the pin and caromed back into the water.
“I think I was making a par and ended up making a good double,” Scott said. “I’ve seen that happen before on the 15th hole.”
The most famous was when Tiger Woods hit the pin with his third shot and went back into the water. That was in 2013 — the year Scott won the Masters — and Woods wound up violating a rule on drops and nearly was disqualified.
Scott hit his sixth shot onto the green and made the putt for 7, knowing it could have worse.
“I was nervous then when I was hitting my sixth shot because the 6 can turn to 8, and it can spiral really out of control,” he said. “I was happy to make a double, but it’s such a momentum killer.”
He completed the first round with a 70, followed up with a 72 and will be at least seven shots behind going to the third round.
CALL IN THE MARKER
When Erik van Rooyen withdrew from the Masters, it forced the rare Friday call for a marker.
Bring on Jeff Knox.
An Augusta National member, Knox has become renowned for playing as a marker on the weekend when an odd number of players make the cut. He joins the single player who goes out first in each of the final two rounds.
Turns out, Knox was needed earlier this year.
Van Rooyen was part of the only twosome in the 92-player field, scheduled to play the first two rounds with South Korea’s Sung Kang. After shooting a 76 in the opening round, van Rooyen dropped out with an unspecified injury.
That would have forced Kang to play the second round alone amid all the threesomes, so the club called on Knox to round out the pairing.