AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The crowd was standing and roaring as the two golfers walked up the fairway toward the 18th green at Augusta National yesterday. Jack Nicklaus was 20 yards in front, but turned and held out his hand in deference to the man leading the tournament. Tom Watson caught up and smiled. "We'll go together," Watson said.
They walked on, the two best American golfers of the past 25 years, 28 major championships and 92 birthdays between them, the noise of the crowd increasing as they reached the green.
"Let's do this again Sunday," Nicklaus said.
Watson nodded. "Yeah, let's," he said.
There was a pause. Watson turned to Nicklaus and smiled.
"I'm going to try to beat your buns," he said.
Nicklaus smiled back. "Yeah," he said, "me, too."
They spent the second round of The Masters together on a warm, cloudy afternoon, and the results were nothing short of memorable. This Masters may provide a stirring finish tomorrow, but any theater will be hard-pressed to top this.
Watson, 41, shot a 68 that conjured memories of his halcyon days, giving him the tournament lead by two strokes. Nicklaus, whose 72 left him four strokes back, put two balls in the water on the par-3 12th hole, but responded with four straight birdies -- yes, four. On the 16th green, within 30 seconds, they made identical, sharply breaking 35-foot putts.
"This was something special for me, playing with Jack at the Masters," said Watson, with whom Nicklaus staged one of the great one-on-ones in golf history, over the last 36 holes at the 1977 British Open, with Nicklaus shooting 65-66 and Watson 65-65 to win by a stroke.
Their pairing was the best story on a wild day at Augusta that included all sorts of twists ordinarily worth headlines. An obscure American, Billy Ray Brown, shot 65. Wales' Ian Woosnam shot 66, pushing him within two strokes of the lead. Lanny Wadkins missed a 6-inch putt. Jose-Maria Olazabal shot himself out of contention with a quadruple-bogey, then back into it with four birdies. A Masters-record 12 sub-70 scores were shot.
"Just typical Augusta character," said Mark McCumber, one of four players standing two strokes behind Watson, in second place. "That's the kind of course it is. Things happen here. Train wrecks. Apollo launches. Emotional roller-coasters. Anything can happen here."
The leader board was a beautiful sight at the end of the day, with eight of the top 12 players having won major championships, 40 among them. Nicklaus (20) and Watson had almost three-fourths of them, of course. Their pairing just stole the day.
When Watson said before the tournament that he thought he could win, many scoffed. He hasn't won a major since 1983, his decline well-documented. But he has shown no sign of the putting troubles that have so hindered him, and the result has been successive 68s. "He didn't miss a putt today," Nicklaus said.
"Leading after two rounds doesn't feel any different than it used to," Watson said. "I said I needed to put four good rounds #F together, and this makes two. I'm putting well, no question. The ones I'm making are going right in the center of the hole. I hope it keeps happening."
As brilliant as Watson's round was, even it was overshadowed by what Nicklaus presented on the back nine.
It started with the quadruple-bogey on No. 12. He put his first shot in the water in front of the hole, proceeded to the drop area and hit a shot that landed on the green and spun back into the water. A third shot and two putts gave him a seven.
"As I walked to the next tee," Nicklaus said, "I told myself, "OK, dummy, you're still just six shots back regardless of what happened, and there are some birdie holes coming up, so let's go play some golf.' It changed my determination a little. I don't know where I found what I did, but I'm glad I did."
On the par-5 13th, he reached the green in two and made a 10-foot birdie putt. On the next hole, a par-4, he hit a 4-iron within two feet of the pin and made another birdie. On the par-5, 500-yard 15th, he hit such a tremendous drive that he needed only a 6-iron to reach the green -- "the second-highest club I've ever hit in that spot," Nicklaus said. "I hit a 7-iron in 1966."
Watson said: "He was so excited about that. He came over and told me, 'Do you know what I hit there? I hit a 6-iron.' I said something about us being old folks."
That made three straight birdies. Then came the par-3 16th. Both golfers hit tee shots to the fat part of the green, far from the hole. Nicklaus lined up his putt, struck the ball and watched it break downhill at least 20 feet and roll right into the cup. The crowd roared, and Watson bowed to Nicklaus. Then Watson stepped up and rolled in a putt from almost the same spot.
"I just watched Jack hit his putt and tried to do the same," Watson said. "All I said to him was, 'Hey, that was easy.' "
Both players parred the last two holes, and the sight of them coming up the 18th was memorable. That Nicklaus turned to wait for Watson was a touch Watson said he would not soon forget.
"That's pure class, and it's no surprise coming from Jack," he said. "That's why I love playing with him. He concentrates like crazy and he's incredibly competitive and you know he's trying to beat your butt, but he's always a total gentleman. We just had a lot of fun out there today."
NOTES: The only notable among those missing the cut was Greg Norman . . . Two-time defending champion Nick Faldo is nine shots off the lead after a 72-73 start . . . Brown's 65 was two shots off the course record, set by Nick Price in 1986 . . . Lanny Wadkins missed a tap-in on No. 9 when he casually backhanded the ball and it slid two feet past the hole.