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AUGUSTA -- There isn't any illusion for Fred Couples.
He knows he's 52. He knows his last PGA Tour win came in 2003. He knows his limitations -- and his strengths.
"I'm certainly not Rory McIlroy or Phil Mickelson, but I do know this course pretty well," Couples said.
Right now, he's better than both.
The 1992 Masters champion shot a Friday-best 5-under 67 to take a share of the 2012 Masters lead heading into the weekend. He's tied with Jason Dufner who shot 2-under Friday even after a disappointing bogey on 18.
"Very shocking and it was a great day," Couples said. "I've said it for 28 years. This is my favorite golf tournament in the world."
Days like Friday explain why.
Couples birdied seven holes, running in putts of more than 20 feet three times. He hit 13 of 18 greens in regulation and never three-putted.
"I felt like I hit the ball well yesterday," said Couples, who shot even-par 72 on Thursday. "That I went out there and hit it solid today, that was really the game plan of not trying to do a whole lot of crazy things, just hit the ball solid and I did, and made a few putts, and ended up shooting a lot lower than I thought.
"Five-under was an incredible round. A very, very good round."
Only three rounds came within a shot of Couples' 5-under and two of them, Sergio Garcia and Phil Mickelson, played their way into contention heading into the weekend.
Garcia is part of a crowded group of five players one shot back that includes Day 1 leader Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, former Georgia golfer Bubba Watson and last year's Masters runner-up Rory McIlroy.
McIlroy shot 3-under Friday, an impressive round completely dominated by his playing partner Couples.
"He always seems to play well here, whenever he comes back," McIlroy said of Couples. "I feel like he still has the length to play this golf course."
Coming off last year's tournament where he blew a Sunday lead, McIlroy opened Thursday with a double-bogey on No. 1, but rebounded to shoot 1-under, with birdies on Nos. 17 and 18. He carried that confidence Friday.
"I think the whole round yesterday was important to me," McIlroy said.
On Friday, the most important round came from Mickelson.
Lefty entered Friday's round 2-over par after a rough first day. But he picked up two early birdies on the front nine, going out 1-under and then took advantage of the improved weather to play the back nine 3-under with birdies on both par 5s and the exclamation birdie on 18 to climb within three strokes of the lead.
"I was hoping for 1- or 2- more under, but that birdie on 18 felt terrific to finish that way," Mickelson said. "And to be only 3 back now heading into the weekend feels great, too. Especially after the first ten holes yesterday."
Day 1 leader Lee Westwood held his lead for nearly the whole of Friday's round, going out with 10 straight pars. Two birdies on the back nine dropped him to 6-under, but a double-bogey on 18 put the Englishman out of the lead for the first time, one stroke back at 4-under.
"I'm not going to be too far off the lead," Westwood said. "That's a position you want to be in."
Former Georgia Tech golfer Matt Kuchar shot 2-under Friday putting him two back of the lead. In total, 16 golfers are within three strokes of the top, including Vijay Singh, Ben Crane, Charles Howell III and Aaron Baddeley.
Tiger Woods approached the cut line with a disappointing 3-over round after starting the day with two birdies in his first three holes.
But the day belonged to Couples, 20 years after he last won at Augusta. He knows he's older, but age doesn't sap confidence.
"Can I win? I believe I can, yes."