AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Given that Trevor Immelman spent much of last year's Masters throwing up and getting IV tubes jammed in his arm, he was almost guaranteed to have a better experience at Augusta National this year.
Is he ever.
Months after weathering a pair of health scares, the 28-year-old South African is back on his feet and leading the Masters at the tournament's midway point.
Immelman, sidelined six weeks following December surgery to remove a non-cancerous tumor from his diaphragm, fired his second consecutive 68 on Friday to grab the lead at 8-under par.
Immelman said making the cut in 2007 after contracting a stomach parasite was akin to winning the tournament. A year later, Immelman is in position to win the title, which would be his first major.
"Obviously, this year is pretty special," Immelman said. "Last year, I got a little unfortunate with the stomach bug. That's just one of those things, bad timing. ... To shoot two 68s in the first two days is probably beyond my expectations, so I'm pretty thrilled right now."
Immelman, who shared the first-round lead with Justin Rose, has a one-stroke lead on former Vanderbilt standout Brandt Snedeker.
Two-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, Englishman Ian Poulter and Steve Flesch, whose 67 was Friday's low round, are three strokes back at 5-under in a tie for third. Rose slumped to a 6-over 78 to drop 10 strokes off the pace.
Fred Couples missed the cut, which fell at 3-over, by one shot and failed to break the record of 23 consecutive cuts made that he shares with Gary Player.
Other notables heading home include Sergio Garcia, Ernie Els and Clemson duo of Jonathan Byrd and D.J. Trahan.
Playing in the fourth group, Immelman birdied nine holes, including 17 and 18, to post an early score that stayed atop the leaderboards all day. Immelman was in the clubhouse when Tiger Woods teed off while staring at an eight-shot deficit and swirling winds that made scoring more difficult in the afternoon.
Of the nine players who broke 70, six had tee times earlier than 10:35 a.m.
Mickelson, who had a bogey-free round of 68, said Immelman and Snedeker were spared the wind that picked up while Mickelson was on the back nine.
"It was pretty calm; there wasn't any wind, and we could get to some pins," Mickelson said. "They finished before I made the turn, so they didn't get the wind picking up."
Woods shot a 1-under 71 and is 1 under for the tournament, seven shots behind Immelman. Woods, who has designs on a Grand Slam, rallied from six strokes back to beat Chris DiMarco at the 2005 Masters for the second-greatest 36-hole comeback in tournament history.
Woods and the rest of the field are chasing a player who four months ago was in a hospital bed in his hometown after experiencing pain in his rib cage while playing in the South African Open. Immelman had surgery to remove the tumor on Dec. 18 and spent two days on morphine before doctors told him tests on the growth were benign.
"It definitely gives you perspective because I went from winning a tournament (in South Africa) to lying in a hospital bed waiting for results on a tumor," he said. "It definitely made me realize that golf wasn't my whole life."
Immelman, the PGA rookie of the year in 2006, missed the cut in four of eight tournaments after returning to the Tour following the surgery. But he played well in two World Golf Championship events against strong fields.
Now he is two rounds away from becoming the first South African to win the Masters since Gary Player in 1978. Player said Immelman has "as fine a swing as anyone playing golf today."
Immelman's week in Augusta last year included a Masters eve visit to a hospital. He hopes to conclude this week with a trip to Butler Cabin, trading his hospital gown for a green jacket.
"I've played this game since I was 5 years old, and all I ever wanted to do was win golf tournaments," he said. "So I kind of felt (the surgery) was just a speed bump because I wanted to keep going. ... I feel like I've been loaned a talent, and I'm going to try to do as well as I can."
• Saturday, 3:30 p.m., CBS (cable channel 5 in Rock Hill)
• Sunday, 2:30 p.m., CBS
• Masters glance • 4D
• Results • 5D
Trevor Immelman68-68--136Brandt Snedeker69-68--137Steve Flesch72-67--139Phil Mickelson71-68--139Ian Poulter70-69--139Stephen Ames70-70--140Paul Casey71-69--140