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Old-man winter an unwelcome patron

4/10/2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- I saw something Thursday morning at Augusta National Golf Club that I've never seen in 14 trips to The Masters -- a North Face jacket. I saw my breath. I saw the lawn where the patrons enter the course turn into a gelatinous sea of sole-sucking mud.

It is cold. It is cold and wet. That's fine if you're a dog's nose, or crouched in a duck blind, but The Masters is supposed to be America's welcome to spring. One reason the tournament has performed so well for CBS for nearly five decades is that a nation trapped indoors by winter is starved to see flowers.

The azaleas are out. To be honest, they're down and out, pelted off their branches by the rain that began Sunday and, like an IRS lien, refuses to go away. Knowing the efficiency of the Augusta National greenskeepers, they'll stay out all night Scotch-taping the petals back where they belong.

That's an exaggeration, of course. Even Augusta National knows when it's licked, as evidenced by the decision late Thursday morning to postpone the first round. Between the rain and the temperature, which hovered around 50 degrees, the conditions are wonderful -- if you want to see the British Open.

"The coldest I've ever been here," said Dan Jenkins, who has covered more than 50 Masters.

"I can't think of any (weather) worse than this," said Will F. Nicholson, Jr., the chairman of the competition committee, who is working on his fourth decade of Masters tournaments.

"I had to go to the Sports Authority (store) this morning to buy extra clothes," said Mike Weir. When you catch a Canadian unprepared, that's cold.

The course will demand length and accuracy. That's great -- if you want to see the U.S. Open. The Masters of years past, the tournament that rewarded players who could be wild off the tee as long as they were imaginative around the greens, is a memory this year. "I never really thought of Augusta National as a U.S. Open course," said George Zahringer, the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion and one of five amateurs in the field. "They could play a U.S. Open here. It has a U.S. Open feel."

The course is officially 7,290 yards. Earlier this week, estimates of how long it would play rose to 7,600 yards. By Thursday, the estimates stood at 8,000. Before long, they'll pass the Dow.

The 18th hole, after the changes made to the course two years ago, is a 465-yard uphill par-4. Jim Furyk said he has hit everything from a 5-iron to a wedge into the sloping green. On Wednesday he hit a 2-iron.

"I hit 4- or 5-iron, 6-iron into the green," Weir said of the finishing hole. "I hit 3-wood yesterday (Wednesday). I had 200 to the front edge of the green. Uphill and into the wind, that's 220, and another 20 to middle of the green. A 465-yard hole is playing 510 yards. Add that up over 18 holes, it's close to 8,000 yards."

The holes that aren't uphill are saturated. With the forecast of additional rain Thursday afternoon into the night, Augusta National appeared ready to turn into 8,000 yards of casual water, interrupted by 18 greens.

"Nothing. Nowhere. There's nothing that's dry out there," Weir said. "Yesterday, it was questionable whether you could take a drop from casual water. If you take relief from casual water, and guys are having to go 80 to 100 yards to find a spot, that's not good."

Tournament officials hope that the golfers will be able to play 36 holes Friday, or certainly 54 by Saturday. Either way, the next two days could be an audition for Fear Factor: the pressure of competing in a major, multiplied by walking a long, wet, hilly course, squared by having to play as many as 36 holes in one day.

"It's tough, especially on this golf course," said two-time Masters champion Bernhard Langer. "It's one of the most demanding courses we play. A lot of guys complain of shin splints. You've got uphill, sidehill and downhill lies, and with the water, you have to be even more careful in how you walk."

Arnold Palmer picked the wrong year to unretire.

The weatherman continues to dangle sunny, 70-degrees days on the weekend, luring everyone down here into the muck. Surely spring will arrive by then. Only two Masters have spilled into Monday -- 1983, the last year in which a day came and went without a shot, and 1971. Tournament officials and players alike expect to finish by Sunday, as they did last year, when rain on Friday and Saturday interrupted the tournament.

Rain, not rain and cold.

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

Before you tune in Friday, put on a sweater. Better yet, send me one.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.