Australian Marcus Fraser gazed down on a formidable league of nations who ganged up behind him as the first Olympic Games golf competition for 112 years promised to turn into an epic medal shoot-out in Rio de Janeiro this weekend.
Fraser, the first round leader after an opening 63, followed that up with a solid two-under-par 69 to lead the 60-strong field with a ten-under-par total of 132.
Now the man from Melbourne can expect a strong challenge from no fewer than five Europeans – including the Champion Golfer of the Year, Henrik Stenson of Sweden – who are poised to make their move over the final 36-holes which will see the gold, silver and bronze decided at Reserva da Marapendi Golf Course on Sunday afternoon.
Fraser’s accomplished performance earned him the most slender of margins over emerging Belgian star, Thomas Pieters, whose 66 lifted him to nine-under-par, one in front of Stenson, who added a 68 to his opening 66.
England’s Justin Rose, the 2013 US Open champion, and Frenchman Gregory Bourdy, are right in the mix a further two shots behind on 136 after matching rounds of 67 and 69. A fifth European, Rafa Cabrera Bello, sustained his continent’s challenge alongside Canada’s Graham DeLaet and New Zealand’s Danny Lee, who fired a best-of-the-day 65.
Two-time Masters champion, Bubba Watson, battled his way back into contention with a terrific second round of 67, following a disappointing opening 73. On 140, two-under-par, Watson needs a strong Saturday in Rio, as does his United States team-mate, Matt Kuchar who added a 70 to his first round 69.
Fraser admitted that he felt some nerves as he set out in the second round, but was pleased with the way he stayed calm under the pressure of competing for an Olympic title. He said: “You always feel nerves, but I’ve done a really good job of controlling them over the last couple days.”
But it helped to have his best friend, Jason Wallace, caddying for him. “Obviously having my best mate on my bag to have a chat to and laugh with – and laugh at – has been good fun,” Fraser said. “We’re having a great time out there. He’s taken the week off work to come over and caddie for me. It’s a lot of fun out there with him. We’ve known each other since we were kids, ten years old.”
The looming presence of Stenson will add considerable lustre to an already exciting Olympic Games golf competition, while Rose also represents a huge medal threat as one of the elite group of major champions in the field.
Stenson, who stabilised his round in tough conditions with a 50-foot birdie putt on the second hole and a 108-footer to save par on the third, said: “There’s a lot of golf still to play. Of course, I’ve always said that I always prefer to be two ahead than two behind, but if you’re not there at the halfway point, you’ve got more to make up for the next two rounds. But over 36 holes, if you’re playing good, you can obviously make up quite a few shots. Yeah, I’m happy with the first two days.”
Rose felt he hadn’t reached his full potential over the first 36 holes and commented: “They certainly don’t give anything out today, so all you can do is put yourself in position. I feel like I’m in a good position going into the weekend. I feel like I have another gear or two to try and find, and it would be nice if it all clicked into shape when you need it.
“It was good. I was solid. You know, I was just staying in third gear with an uphill climb, just grinding it out. I haven’t seen any long putts fall. I had the hole‑in‑one obviously yesterday which was a big stroke of luck, but I feel like there haven’t been any sort of distance putts made yet or anything like that. So I feel that I need to keep doing what I’m doing and wait for a run of birdies.”