AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He has never won a major in a fairly distinguished 18-year career; flirting but never finishing, a perennial people's choice who somehow has stayed on the periphery. He has had his close calls here, too, at Augusta National.
But now Jay Haas finds himself in position to do what he has never done before, something that only one American -- Fred Couples in 1992 -- has accomplished in the past seven years: take home the most coveted jacket in sports.
With a stunning round of 8-under-par 64 yesterday, a round that ended with a string of four straight birdies and left him one shot off the course record, the 41-year-old Haas charged into the lead at the 1995 Masters.
At 9-under-par 135, Haas is one shot ahead of two other PGA Tour veterans, Scott Hoch and John Huston. Former Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and two of the first-round co-leaders, left-handed phenom Phil Mickelson and David Frost, are at 7-under 137.
"The times that I've been in the top 10 here, it's usually been a last-round charge, sort of," said Haas, who finished tied for fifth last year, tied for seventh in 1987, tied for sixth in 1986 and fifth in 1985.
"I was in a zone, I guess you'd say. Every time I looked up, I was feeling like I was going to hit it close."
Nearly every time Haas hit it close, he made the putt. He had five birdies through the first 11 holes, and none were longer than eight feet. His only bogey came at the par-5 13th when he three-putted from 35 feet. Of his four birdies to close, the longest was a 15-footer at the par-4 18th.
"I've had good rounds here in the past, and I finished this one off," said Haas, whose round was the best by any player here since Mike Donald's 64 in 1990, his personal best here by five strokes and one shot off Nick Price's record in 1986.
It wasn't one of his strong closing rounds here, but one of his worst closing rounds while in contention at a major that Haas said he'll think about when he tees it up this afternoon -- his disastrous Sunday in the PGA Championship last summer.
Playing in the last group with eventual champion Nick Price at Southern Hills, Haas struggled early and wound up with 75. It dropped him from second to 14th, but made him understand a little bit about what it would take for him to win a major.
"Last year, I really felt like I was going to win," said Haas, who has won nine tournaments and close to $5 million in his career. "I was playing well going in. I was putting extremely well. I felt like my emotions were in check. I was very disappointed with the last round. If I learned anything, I learned that I shouldn't be afraid of that position."
With the exception of Crenshaw, the 1984 champion, none of the Americans at or near the top of the leader board here has won a major. It's not quite the charge of the lightweight brigade trying -- to end a recent string of foreign domination both here and in the majors overall, but it raises doubts more than confidence.
Hoch's most famous -- or infamous moment -- in his 16-year career came when he blew a 2 1/2 -footer for birdie in sudden death against Nick Faldo here six years ago, and lost on the next playoff hole. Huston had a 66 in his very first round in the Masters five years ago, and hasn't done much since.
Asked about the monkey on his back, Hoch said after his 5-under 67 yesterday: "They've got a long life. Monkeys live a long time. I've thought about it. I think the way to get past it is to win a major."
If an American player breaks the recent trend of foreign domination that includes victories in each of last year's Grand Slam events, it won't be Jack Nicklaus doing it. After starting out Thursday with a 5-under-par 67, there was talk of Nicklaus' being in the hunt and possibly extending his record of green jackets to seven.
The talk ended yesterday, amid a flurry of bad putts and even one dead shank on his tee shot at the par-3 No. 12 that didn't even reach the pond in front of the green. Nicklaus bogeyed four of the first five holes and finished with a 6-over 78.
"There's nothing wrong with my game that my head can't fix," said Nicklaus, 55.
While Nicklaus remains the oldest player in the field, the youngest player remains in the field. Tiger Woods, 19, the U.S. Amateur champ, continued his remarkable week with a second straight even-par 72. He became the second-youngest player to make the Masters cut (Bobby Clampett was two months short of 19 in 1979).
It also was the first time he's made the cut in eight pro tournaments.
"It looks like I'll be in Butler Cabin [as low amateur]," said Woods, alluding to the post-match ceremony.
Haas hopes to be there, too, for the main ceremony. He'd be the second member of his family, following his uncle, Bob Goalby, who was awarded the green jacket in 1968 after Roberto DeVicenzo made the biggest gaffe in Masters history: signing an incorrect score card.
Though his memory of that day is a bit foggy, Haas can clearly remember coming to Augusta National with his uncle the following year. Goalby had missed the cut at the Greensboro Open and Haas was on a recruiting trip to Wake Forest. Haas got to sneak in a few shots.
"Nobody's supposed to know that, but I did," he recalled with a laugh. "I knocked it on the green at 12, and he said if you ever get to play here, you'll wish you had that shot. I birdied No. 5 and he said I'll never do that again, and I don't think I ever have."
But Haas will have to recreate some of that magic from long ago, and from yesterday, over the next two days. To finish instead of flirt. To get out of the periphery and into the spotlight at Augusta. To take home the most coveted jacket in sports.
"That would be nice," he said.
! The leaders . . .
Jay Haas .. .. .. .71-64--135
John Huston .. .. .70-66--136
Scott Hoch .. .. ..69-67--136
# . . . and followers
Ben Crenshaw .. ...70-67--137
David Frost .. .. .66-71--137
Phil Mickelson .. .66-71--137
$ Complete scores: 11C