World No 1 Scottie Scheffler defied difficult windy conditions to fire a five-under-par 67 at Augusta National on Friday to take a five-shot lead at The Masters.
Scheffler grabbed four of his seven birdies in the space of five holes on the back nine to race away from the field in pursuit of a first Major title to go with his new No 1 ranking.
His eight-under-par total of 136 put him well clear of a quartet of players, including two past champions in last year’s winner, Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, and 2011 winner Charl Schwartzel of South Africa.
Matsuyama and Schwartzel both carded 69s, Ireland’s Shane Lowry posted a 68 and overnight leader Im carded a two over 74.
Scheffler supplanted Spain’s Jon Rahm atop the rankings with his first three career PGA Tour titles in his last five starts.
Even so, he has been a minor attraction at Augusta National, where 15-time Major champion Tiger Woods is seeking another miracle Masters comeback 14 months after a rollover car crash left him with injuries so severe he feared he might have to have his right leg amputated.
Fans flocked to see Woods, who fired a two over 74 for a 145 total that put him nine shots off the lead.
But Scheffler was certainly worth watching. With winds swirling through the towering pines, he was one over through his first three holes after two bogeys and a birdie.
He kickstarted his round with back-to-back birdies at the 7th and 8th – rapping in a two-footer at the 8th to take the outright lead at four under par.
“Once I saw that I took the lead at one point today, my first thought was to just keep trying to build it because I feel like I’m playing well,” he said.
Scheffler said his front nine, in the worst of the winds, “was such a grind”.
“The wind was crazy,” he said. “There were some times where we saw the sand blowing up out of the bunkers out there. It was ridiculous.
“I think we were a little bit fortunate that it did die down a little bit towards the end of the day,” added Scheffler.
Wind gusting in from the right was a factor at 11, where Scheffler said it made it impossible to judge the downhill shot into the green.
He went right of the green and got up and down for par, then drained a 12-foot birdie putt at the 12th, and gave himself a four-foot birdie putt at the par-five 13th.
He put together another pair of birdies at the 15th and 16th, pitching from off the green to nine feet at the 15th and landing his tee shot at the par-three 16th seven feet from the pin and rolling it in.
He settled for par from a greenside bunker at the 17th, reached the green from the trees right of the fairway at 18 and two-putted from 13 feet for a closing par.
In all, he hit 12 of 14 fairways on Friday and 13 greens in regulation. On the treacherous undulating greens of Augusta he has made nine of his 11 putts from five to 10 feet over the first two rounds.
Scheffler matched the low round of the day. American Justin Thomas also carded an impressive 67 that was good enough to move him up to a share of 10th place on 143.
“Today was pretty important,” Scheffler said. “I want to put myself in a position to win tournaments and that’s what’s fun for me.
“That’s what I’ve done the first two days here, and hopefully I’ll keep things moving this weekend.”
© Agence France-Presse