Belgian debutant Pieters, 25, who played a starring role for Europe on his Ryder Cup debut in September, hit 68, while the ever-improving Fowler joined the quartet late Friday with a 67.
The 37-year-old Garcia, for so long golf’s nearly man, is playing in his 73rd major as a professional but is still chasing a first win. Could the stars finally be aligning for him, or is it just a little too perfect? Sunday, after all, coincides with what would have been fellow Spaniard Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday.
Ballesteros, who died in 2011, was the first European to win the Masters in 1980 and backed it up with another green jacket in 1983.
Garcia’s talent has been evident since he came second to Tiger Woods in the 1999 US PGA as an ebullient 19-year-old, but his tantalising career has also been racked by self-doubt, a tendency to bemoan his misfortune, and a less than warm relationship with Augusta.
In 2012, after a frustrating third round, he told Spanish reporters: “I’m not good enough and today I know it.
“I’ve been trying for 13 years and I don’t feel capable of winning. I don’t know what happened to me. Maybe it’s something psychological. After 13 years, my chances are over. I’m not good enough for the majors. That’s it.”
But Garcia, who is engaged to be married later this year, reckons he is “a bit calmer now” and is “working on trying to accept things.” He duly accepted birdies on his first three holes despite the stiff early wind Friday and kept up the pressure as he bids to better tied fourth in 2004.
American Hoffman, who breezed around a blustery Augusta Thursday, wobbled in the wind Friday but kept his nerve as the pack closed in as he chases a first major title at the 23rd attempt.
“I obviously wasn’t going to follow up yesterday’s round with another but I’m happy with the way I finished,” the 40-year-old, who came ninth in 2015, told Sky.
The highlight of Pieters’ round was an eagle three at the stunning par-5 13th. A birdie to follow at 14 took him into a share of the lead and he parred his way home.
The last player to win the Masters on his debut was Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979, but Pieters is not one to dwell on peripheries.
“I don’t overthink stuff,” explained the unflappable Pieters, who won four of his five matches against the USA at Hazeltine. “It is a special course and special tournament but it’s still just golf.
“I’m going to take the experience from the Ryder Cup — that was great pressure and this is intense, too. I like it.”
Couples in contention
Fowler, 28, who finished in the top five in all four majors in 2014 but has yet to win one of golf’s big events, began his charge with an eagle at the long second when he holed from the greenside bunker.
“I’m excited, I’m looking forward to the weekend, it’s going to be fun,” Fowler told Sky Sports.
American debutant William Girt, 37, bogeyed the last for a 73 to remain in the hunt at two under.
The only other players to break par — at one under — were American Ryan Moore, exciting young Spaniard Jon Rahm, England’s 2013 US Open champion Justin Rose, and veteran Fred Couples.
The 57-year-old Couples shot 70 to keep alive a dream of a second green jacket 25 years after his first.
The laid-back American is invigorated by Augusta and shares the record of 23 consecutive cuts made at the Masters with three-time champion Gary Player. He has also had five top-20 finishes since turning 50.
“I love the place, I’ve said that for 33 straight years,” Couples told Sky Sports. “In conditions like this I almost feel better. In the bad weather it’s a battle and by playing here so many times I feel I can save shots.”
Phil the thrill
Jordan Spieth, who has finished second, first, second in his three visits to Augusta, birdied three of his last six holes for a 69 to climb back to level par after suffering a quadruple-bogey nine at the 15th in a round of 75 Thursday.
“I think the course is going to get very firm, keeping the ball below the hole is so key when the nerves at the weekend come up,” Spieth told Sky Sports.
Three-time champion Mickelson, who at 46 and nine months could overtake Jack Nicklaus as the oldest Masters winner should he triumph Sunday, reached three under at one point but dropped three shots in his last five holes to slide back to level par. Alongside him was 2013 champion Adam Scott of Australia.
Mickelson, who won his last Masters in 2010, is looking forward to calmer weather at the weekend which should offer perfect scoring opportunities.
“I’m expecting us to be able to get after it and make a lot of birdies and eagles,” he said.
Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy mixed four birdies, including a chip-in at the sixth, with five bogeys — the last after his approach to the 28th hit the pin and bounced off the green — to shoot 73 for one over par.
McIlroy needs the Masters to become only the sixth player to win all four of golf’s major titles — along with Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen. Of that illustrious group, only Sarazen achieved the feat at Augusta.
“It was another day you just had to battle and make a lot of pars and pick up the odd birdie here and there,” McIlroy told Sky Sports.
“Going into the weekend. I feel like I can put a run of 31 or 32 together and get a bit closer to the leaders.”
‘Golf is tough’
The weekend cut fell at seven over and claimed defending champion Danny Willett, who followed up his opening 73 with a five-over 78.
The Englishman, who began his second round with a quadruple-bogey eight, became the first champion to miss the cut since Canadian Mike Weir in 2004.
WIllett will have to remain at Augusta until Sunday to present the winner with the green jacket.
British Open champion Henrik Stenson finished eight over to also miss the cut alongside two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson.