Englishmen have won 38 major championships but a lot of golf has been played since Nick Faldo broke Greg Norman’s heart to claim the 1996 Masters.

That drought could end this weekend with Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood two strokes clear of the field on eight under par after respective rounds of 68 and 69.

Unlike Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the English pair won’t be looking over their shoulders at the five-strong chasing posse wondering, ‘who are those guys?’ when they go out in the final two ball. 

The quintet of pursuers is led by none other than Tiger Woods, who cruised to a seemingly effortless 70 on a day of cool, swirling winds and sadistic pin positions. 

Joining Woods on six under are the Korean KJ Choi (71), former US Amateur champion Ricky Barnes (70), the red-hot Houston Open winner Anthony Kim (70) and two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson (71) with US PGA champion YE Yang just three off the pace on five under after a 72.

Westwood and Poulter will be comfortable in each other’s company in the final two ball today but no one is more at ease at the business end of a major than Woods, despite his 144 day absence from the game.

“Well, I want to be in contention, and put myself right there,” Woods said. “As of now, I’m two back, and we’ve got 36 more holes to go.

“On this golf course you can make up shots and you can lose shots.  That’s one of the beauties of it.  It should be an exciting weekend.”

Westwood proved the point by racing to 10 under par through 13 holes of his round. A double bogey six at the viciously sloping 14th stopped his charge but while he birdied the 15th, he drove into trees at the last and bogeyed to fall back into a share of the lead with Poulter. A sign of nerves or just a blip? Westwood would like to think it was the latter.

Set to sleep on the lead in a major for the first time in his career, he appears to be taking it all in his stride, strengthened by third place finishes in the Open and the US PGA last year.

“I know can contend into these big events now,” Westwood said. “A few years ago I would have lost my patience after the double on 14 but I came back with two great shots on 15. 

“Leading? It’s the best position to be in, so that’s what I set out for at the start of the week, to get up there by the lead.  If you’re going to win the tournament, you’ve got to be in the lead at some stage.”

Poulter rubs many people up the wrong way but you have to admire the sheer tenacity of the 34-year old Englishman who grabbed the clubhouse lead on eight under par thanks to a second successive 68.

He sold Mars bars when he became a humble golf club assistant professional with a four handicap in 1994 but has since become one of the best players in the world and a marketing genius to boot.

Just over two years ago he was derided in the press and laughed at by some of his colleagues when was quoted saying: “Don’t get me wrong, I really respect every professional golfer, but I know I haven’t played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger.”

That’s now a real possibility.

Victory over Paul Casey in the WGC - Accenture Match Play Championship in February saw him leap to a career high of fifth in the world. It also added to his already bullet-proof confidence and he is now just one major win away from becoming world No 2. 

Asked if he felt vindicated, he said: “Sure, if I win this week, I’ll probably go No. 2, which would be lovely.  (Laughter) So I guess it’s a work in progress.  I’m working towards that. (Laughter) So, we’ll see.” 

Labelled a preening peacock at times, his colourful dress sense is not to everyone’s taste but when asked what colour outfit might match a green jacket, he showed that he has a keen sense of humour.

“Absolutely anything,” he said to general amusement before revealing that he will be wearing a “hot pink pair of tartans with a white shirt” on Sunday.

This is the stuff of dreams for Poulter.

“To be playing Augusta was in my dreams,” he said. “And to be sitting at the top of the leaderboards was in my dreams, as well.  So hopefully we can have a good weekend and be in a similar situation come Sunday night.”

Fred Couples is bidding to become the oldest winner of the Masters since a 46 year old Jack Nicklaus triumphed in 1986.

But the 50 year old overnight leader was suffering from a bad back yesterday and faltered, three putting the 16th and 17th and then overshooting the 18th to finish with a confidence sapping hat-trick of bogeys and a 75 that left him five strokes adrift of Poulter and Westwood on three under par.

“Yesterday was a great day,” said the 1992 champion. “Today was not too good, 75 is a very mediocre score. But I’m done.  As soon as I get home and lay down I’ll be all right. But right now I’m tired and pissed off to be honest with you.”

Tom Watson also failed to build on his first round 67, though a birdie at the last for a 74 means he is still only five behind on three under par with the Dane Soren Kjeldsen.

The cut fell at three over par which ended not only the hopes of Padraig Harrington, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy but also Martin Kaymer, Luke Donald, Open champion Stewart Cink, Ross Fisher, Paul Casey, Vijay Singh, Henrik Stenson and Jim Furyk.