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Splish, splash: First round a wash

With the first round delayed, players brace for 36 long holes in today's likely mud pit.

By BOB HARIG, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 11, 2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The dark cloud remains, but now it hovers over the Masters in a literal sense.

Plagued by controversy over the all-male membership policy at Augusta National, the 67th Masters is a mess because of rain that has been in the area since Sunday.

The constant precipitation meant the postponement of Thursday's first round, a first since 1939 and the only time any round of the tournament was washed out in 20 years.

So the year's first major championship and Tiger Woods' quest for three straight Masters titles was on hold until today, weather permitting, when 36 holes are scheduled for the 93-player field.

"I've never seen weather like this in a major," said Ernie Els, who won last year's British Open behind the strength of a third-round 72 in a driving rainstorm. "They made the right decision. We've done this quite a few times, but not in a major."

Augusta officials said nearly four inches of rain fell on the course since Sunday. A storm prompted the course's closing for Monday's practice round, and participants practiced in on-and-off rainy conditions Tuesday and Wednesday.

At first Augusta officials delayed Thursday's start until 11 a.m. and planned to go off in threesomes from the first and 10th tees. But shortly before 11, with more rain predicted for the already saturated course, they postponed play until today.

It was the seventh time in 67 Masters that an entire round was washed out.

"We just think it was unfair to start play," said Will Nicholson, chairman of the competition committee. "I can't think of any worse than this."

"Evidently they felt it was unplayable," said Woods, who didn't go to the course for his tee time. "I feel bad for the fans, but given how wet the course was I'm sure tournament officials did the right thing."

"I told friends last year, 'I've never seen it like this; you'll never see it like this again,"' Lee Janzen said, referring to rain that postponed part of Friday's round and meant a two-tee start Saturday. "I was wrong. It's worse this year than last year. It's a good decision not to play. I think the guys are prepared to play Monday."

Masters officials hope that is not necessary. Nicholson said there will be a two-tee start at 7:30 this morning, with the second round scheduled for 1:30 p.m.

If there are delays, the second round will be completed Saturday morning, followed by the 36-hole cut and the start of the third round. The weather forecast calls for rain to stop today and temperatures climbing into the 70s Saturday and Sunday.

But to get to the weekend requires fortitude today. The course is long at 7,290 yards, and the wet conditions will make it play longer.

"I always look forward to playing the Masters," Fred Funk said. "But playing this long course under these conditions is no fun time."

"If you're not in really good shape you'll be in a lot more trouble," Rocco Mediate said. "Fitness is a good thing for (today)."

"We've done this many times before," said Jay Haas, 49, competing in his 20th Masters. "It's our job to deal with it. It'll be a long day. You have to be patient, get off to a good start. If you play well you can handle the long day better, handle it better emotionally.

"I have never seen it like this at the Masters. I have never seen it this wet, playing this long. It seems like they did the right thing. The greens are fine. The rest of the course is saturated. There's no place for the water to go."

It's fortunate the course has a subterranean system, called SubAir, beneath each green that essentially pumps water away from the greens. The putting surfaces should be wet, but playable. It takes four hours to totally dry the greens, half that to make them playable.

Nicholson could only shake his head at the water. Last week, he said, the course was in unbelievable condition.

"The fairways were firm, they were fast, the greens were firm, the pace was picking up. It was absolutely perfect," he said. "I thought we had an opportunity to play this course the way the course is designed, and unfortunately we still have not yet seen that."

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