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Rain postpones first round of Masters

4/10/2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Augusta National finally met its match --
Mother Nature, not Martha Burk. Four days of heavy rain turned
golf's hallowed grounds into a muddy mess and forced the first
round of the Masters to be postponed for the first time since 1939.

Tiger Woods, chasing history as he goes after his third straight
title, didn't even make it to the golf course. Those who did never
got much farther than the clubhouse.

''We believe this golf course is unplayable,'' said Will
Nicholson, chairman of the competition committees. ''This golf
course will just not take any more water.''

The 93 players will return Friday for 36 holes -- weather
permitting -- as The Masters continues on a strange path through
uncharted waters.

Augusta National endured nine months of criticism leveled by
Burk and the National Council of Women's Organizations against the
club's all-male membership. She still plans to protest Saturday --
the first day sunshine is in the forecast.

The club closed its gates Monday for the first time in 20 years
because of rain and lightning, and even part of the fabled Par 3
Tournament was rained out Wednesday.

Now this.

''I'd like to see something good happen here because of all the
negative press,'' David Toms said. ''But we don't play in a dome.
They'll get the tournament in, and they'll have a great champion.''

That begs two questions -- when and who?

The forecast is for more showers in the morning, and officials
are skeptical about being able to finish two rounds by darkness
Friday.

When they do get around to the golf, the soggy turf should play
right into the hands of Woods, the two-time defending champion, and
others who hit the ball high and far. That's what it might take to
navigate a 7,290-yard course that will seem even longer.

Stamina also figures to play a big role.

''If you're not under 32 and can hit 280, you've got no
chance,'' said Loren Roberts, who is 47 and averages 254 off the
tee. ''I don't know. I've been wrong before.''

Most everyone thought postponing the first round was the right
move.

''Evidently, they felt it was unplayable,'' Woods said.

Starting times already were pushed back 30 minutes, and
officials rescheduled to 11 a.m. because of more overnight showers
that brought the rainfall to 4 inches since Sunday.

Unlike Monday, the club opened the gates to 30,000 fans who had
nothing to do but visit the gift shop, spend $1.25 on pimiento
cheese sandwiches and walk gingerly through the ugly mixture of
brown slop that oozed up and covered trampled grass along the
fairways.

They stood four-deep around the practice range, peering over
each other's head, even though nobody was hitting balls. A few
dozen fans sat in their folding chairs at Amen Corner, waiting for
players that never came by.

''They're probably desperate to see a shot,'' Scott Verplank
said.

The Masters is the annual rite of spring in golf, where dogwoods
and azaleas blaze under warm, sunny skies. This felt more like
winter, with dreary, low-hanging clouds and temperatures in the
upper 40s. Snow was possible two hours away in Greenville, S.C.

It was the fifth consecutive major championship interrupted at
some point by rain, dating to last year's Masters when Augusta
National smelled like a dairy barn with all the muck.

''I told friends last year, 'I've never seen it like this.
You'll never see it like this again.' I was wrong,'' Lee Janzen
said. ''It's worse this year.''

Only this time, the course was not suited for play.

An hour before The Masters was supposed to start, officials
moved a hole about 10 feet to higher ground. They used hand mowers
to trim the landing areas in the fairway, but none of it mattered.
On the third and seventh fairways, there was simply nowhere to take
relief from casual water.

Players are allowed to lift, clean and place their balls in the
fairway at regular PGA Tour events to cope with the mud. That
doesn't happen at the majors, and Nicholson made it clear that the
ball is played as it lies at The Masters.

''We believe that's the traditional way to play the game, and
that's the way we intend to play the game,'' he said.

No one was surprised.

''There would be a woman member here before that happens,''
Chris DiMarco said.

Few players were disappointed they had to wait until Friday to
start the Masters, having spent the last couple of days slugging
3-irons into par 4s and slogging through fairways.

Verplank broke the news to about a dozen of them in the dining
room, and no one believed him. Only when PGA Tour rules official
Mark Russell made it official did the giddiness begin.

''Write in your paper that Thomas Levet is tied for the lead on
the first day of The Masters,'' the gregarious Frenchman said as he
changed out of his shoes.

Some players either practiced for a few hours or made plans to
go to the movies.

''I've got a nice house with a lot of friends,'' Roberts said.
''I've got to get back to a poker game that's been going on the
last three days.''

Even though the day was lost, fans still milled about Augusta
National. All they could do was use their imagination as they gazed
at greens without flagsticks and a course without players.

David Ziff came from Atlanta for his first Masters experience
with a friend who arranged for the tickets. Driving down Washington
Road, they heard on the radio that the first round had been called
off.

''We had a look of shock,'' Ziff said, holding three bags of
Masters merchandise. ''I'm going to walk the course, look around
and go back to Atlanta. At least I can say I've been here.''