Golf: World No. 1 Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Cameron Smith and Abraham Ancer share Masters lead

Johnson plays his shot from the ninth tee during the second round. PHOTO: AFP

AUGUSTA, UNITED STATES (AFP) - World number one Dustin Johnson and third-ranked Justin Thomas seized a share of the Masters second-round clubhouse lead on Friday (Nov 13) with two unexpected contenders, Australian Cameron Smith and Mexico's Abraham Ancer.

As rain-softened Augusta National surrendered unprecedented success, Thomas closed with back-to-back birdies to shoot a three-under 69 and US compatriot Johnson birdied his final hole to shoot 70 and join the lead pack on nine-under par 135.

"I like my position going into the weekend," Johnson said.

"Conditions are going to stay relatively the same. You are going to have to stay aggressive. You have to keep shooting well."

Smith closed with an eagle and three birdies to shoot 68 while Ancer, trying to become the first debut Masters winner in 41 years, birdied two of his last four holes to fire 67.

"It was a very up and down round, a little bit scrappy," Smith said.

"But hung there and at the end, it was brilliant."

Im Sung-jae, a 22-year-old South Korean also making his Masters debut, fired a 70 to share fifth with American Patrick Cantlay on 136.

Three Englishmen were another stroke adrift - reigning Olympic champion Justin Rose, 16th-ranked Tommy Fleetwood and 2016 Masters champion Danny Willett.

"With it being softer this year, some flags are a hell of a lot easier," Willett said.

"Some are a lot trickier. But all in all you'll see scoring better when the greens are softer."

With a Thursday rain delay forcing a Friday first-round finish, golfers stung Augusta National for the lowest opening-round scoring average in Masters history, 71.43 strokes, with 53 players under par in round one and 24 scores in the 60s, both Masters round records.

Germany's 63-year-old Bernhard Langer became the oldest player to make the cut in Masters history, going 68-73 to stand on 141.

An expected 1-under cut line would be the lowest in Masters history.

"You've got to think Augusta National is going to get this place going this weekend," Thomas said.

"They can't do anything about the weather. I just need to keep playing well and playing aggressive and I'll have my chances."

Four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, seeking a green jacket to complete a career Grand Slam, completed a 75 in the storm-hit first round on Friday, then rebounded with a bogey-free 66 to revive his chances.

Defending champion Tiger Woods, who matched his best-ever Masters start with a 68, was among the last players to tee off Friday, destined not to end the second round until Saturday.

Johnson reeled off three birdies in Amen Corner, Augusta's famed 11th-13th holes, then followed with back-to-back bogeys and pars all the way until his closing birdie.

"Played real solid, had a lot of good looks, none of them seemed to want to go in," Johnson said.

"But it was nice to finish with a birdie at nine. With the soft conditions it's a lot easier to keep the ball on the greens."

Ancer has seen enough

World number 21 Ancer, who had not seen Augusta National before Wednesday of last week, hasn't felt troubled on a course where experience is considered a vital asset.

"It has been fine," Ancer said. "I've been able to get it up and down or make birdie from the pine straw. It has been a lot of fun. I feel good."

Neither Ancer nor Smith has ever held a 36-hole lead on the US PGA Tour.

The Masters was postponed from its usual April date by the Covid-19 pandemic, which also forced the event behind closed doors as a safety move.

Earlier, Johnson sank a five-foot birdie putt at the 18th to complete an opening-round 65, his lowest career Masters round and first without a bogey.

Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner, finished a first-round 68, having never shot better than a 73 in four prior Masters opening rounds.

Johnson could become the first world number one to win the Masters since Woods in 2002. He was a runner-up in three of the past six majors, including a best-ever Masters effort last year.

The lanky 36-year-old American missed two planned Masters tuneups after testing positive for Covid-19 last month but was a runner-up last week in Houston in his tour return.

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