AUGUSTA -- Earlier in the week, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood played a practice round at Augusta National.

Westwood beat Poulter with ease. Poulter said he lost a few bucks in the process.

"He would remember that," Westwood said Friday, rolling his eyes.

The Englishmen, Poulter flamboyant and Westwood subdued, will pair up again this afternoon. The only difference is they will be in the final group at the Masters, with their vision pointed toward a green jacket.

"Well," Westwood said, "we won't be cracking jokes on each other's backswings."

Poulter and Westwood stand at 8-under par 136, two shots clear of a fivesome that includes Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.

South Korea's K.J. Choi, who played with Woods and will again, and Americans Ricky Barnes and Anthony Kim are also at 138 after two rounds.

Poulter's 4-under 68 on Friday tied the day's low round on a tricky scoring day, thanks to unpredictable winds and increasingly difficult pins.

Westwood would have matched that 68 if not for an errant drive right on 18. He bogeyed to slip back even with Poulter. Westwood was as low as 10 under until a double- bogey at the difficult 14th hole stunted his progress.

Nevertheless, both Englishmen will have a legitimate shot at their first majors.

"There was a lot of talk before this tournament that the English guys are in good form," Poulter said. "They certainly are -- and we are sitting at the top of the leaderboard now."

Nick Faldo was the last Brit to win here in 1996.

Still, with three top-10 players in the world, the English seem a bit chippy that the golfing world is potentially surprised to see the Mother Country atop the leaderboard at Augusta.

Westwood is ranked No. 4 in the world. Poulter isn't far behind, at No. 7.

"We're not up at the top of the world rankings by mistake, you know," said Westwood, 36. "We ought to be contending in these major championships in these biggest events where the best players should contend."

Westwood said a major title is all that his missing from his resume, which includes a half-dozen Ryder Cup appearances and 20 victories on the European Tour.

Poulter won earlier this year at the Match Play Championship; he's no stranger to hardware. Or a strange wardrobe.

"I'm pleased that I gave myself so many chances," said Poulter, the 34-year-old father of two who wore a canary yellow shirt and light pink pants on Friday. "I would say it's one of the best rounds of golf I've played in a while."

The relative elderly on the leaderboard went a bit backward in the tougher conditions, but 50-year-old Fred Couples and 60-year-old Tom Watson aren't yet out of it.

After Couples' 75 and Watson's 74, they're both 3 under for the tournament.

And despite the circumstances surrounding this event, Woods is in the hunt.

The biggest sports story in the world this weekend, Woods is proving he's not just a sideshow of tabloid fodder. He also belongs on sports pages because he's playing the golf to merit it.

His driver has been more accurate than expected, his irons going along similarly. He's merely a few short missed putts away from leading at the halfway point.

As it is, rounds of 68 and 70 are enough to put him well within striking distance.

Tiger was asked if he liked his position through the first 36 holes.

He didn't give much of a verbal answer, but he said a ton with a giant grin and rather loud laugh.

Maybe this is why Woods reacted that way: It's the fourth time he's been in third place or better entering the weekend at the Masters. The other three resulted in green jackets.

"If feels good to be back and in contention," Woods said. "I usually put myself in contention most of the time most years here, and this year I'm right there."

Woods, the 14-time major winner, hasn't won here since 2005.

If you merely watched him play golf, you'd have absolutely no clue what Woods' past five months have entailed. He's doing what you'd expect -- he's competing.

Repeatedly asked about the pressure and circus surrounding his return to the game after spending five months in hiding, Woods just shrugs with an awkward smile and gives short, one-sentence responses.

"I'm just playing," was one such answer to international TV reporters just after his round Friday.

Woods doesn't seem surprised by how well he's striking the golf ball. He says his practices with swing coach Hank Haney were serious and productive.

"I felt I could put myself in contention," Woods said. "My practice has been really consistent and progressing with Hank. And I didn't have the luxury of playing tournaments coming in here."

Putting was the thing he figured would round into form last -- and that's because of the difficulty of the greens here, not necessarily his own stroke.

But that's not anything new for Woods, who might have won a couple of other times here if not for the flat stick.

With 30 or so players in red numbers, Thursday's tale was about target practice at Augusta National.

The club -- in part sensing bad weather, in part wanting to draw in viewers with scoring -- allowed for the course to be had.

On Friday? Not so much. It tightened the belt to the point of discomfort. The scoring average went from 73.14 to 74.5 from day one to day two.

"It was a lot different today," Woods said.

Hole locations on Nos. 4, 14 and 16 were particularly devilish.

Woods, for one, said he expects something similar for the weekend.

Will Woods have the familiar feel of a green jacket on his shoulders come Sunday eve? Or Phil his third Masters win? Or will it be England's 30-somethings, gunning for their first major title?

Reach Travis Haney at thaney@postandcourier.com.