By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Veteran Fred Couples may be a part-time player these days but somehow he always seem to flourish at the Masters where he has developed a life-long love affair with Augusta National.
Creaking back or not, the easy-going American repeatedly feeds off the energy of his adoring fans and he once again delivered in Friday's second round, firing a one-under-par 71 in difficult scoring conditions to climb into contention.
Twenty-one years after he won his only major title at the iconic venue widely known as the 'Cathedral of Pines,' former champion Couples bounced back from a roller-coaster outward nine to post a five-under total of 139.
"It's a hard course out there," the 53-year-old from Seattle told reporters after recording two birdies after the turn in swirling winds. "I felt very good about what I shot.
"I had a couple of little hiccups out there and did some other good things to shoot my score. But the golf course is winning today. The golf course is brutal, and honestly, I feel great about a 71."
Couples, who has limited his playing schedule in recent seasons due to lingering back injuries, made an erratic start, going bogey, par, birdie, bogey, par, birdie before making a hash of the par-four seventh.
"I butchered the 7th hole," he said of his double-bogey there. "I actually thought I hit a pretty good second shot but I just hit it over the green, over the bunker and the pin was way right.
"And I told myself to play it for a (bogey) five and I kind of gashed a sand wedge over the green into the gallery and chipped it up five feet and missed that for bogey.
"But then I made a huge two-putt from the front edge of number eight from about 100 feet, and that was kind of like a sigh of relief. From then on, I played really, really well."
Couples, who epitomizes 'California cool,' is competing in his 29th Masters at Augusta National where he has recorded 11 top-10 finishes, most recently sixth place in 2010.
Asked if he felt he could stay in contention over the final two rounds, he replied: "The last two days, I've driven the ball nicely, and so it seems like the same old course for me.
"So then you get into, am I good enough to play four good rounds in a row on a course like this? It didn't happen last year. I was four over pretty fast on Saturday, which was a real bummer."
Couples tied for 12th at Augusta National last year after holding a share of the lead going into the weekend but then battling to a 75 in the third round.
"And then on Sunday, I played well enough to finish in a good spot," he recalled of his 2012 performance. "Hopefully tomorrow will be a little different and I will play well and have a shot at Sunday. That's my goal.
"I did tee off on Thursday with the idea of playing well, and now it's Friday afternoon late. I'm surprised, but I'm not like, you know, going to freak out over it. But it is hard."
Couples, whose 1992 victory at Augusta National was warmly applauded for one of the most popular figures in the game, said he was not at all concerned about his back going into the weekend.
"No, no, if it was a problem, I wouldn't be playing like this," said the 15-times PGA Tour winner. "I'll go back and get rest and I probably won't tee off till one o'clock tomorrow or so. So I'm fine. I feel good."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)