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Now this is The Masters

4/12/2003

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- It took three days, but we finally have The Masters that we know and love.

The tournament didn't begin until Friday, and on Saturday Mike Weir did his best to keep it from ever starting. The Canadian sprinted to a five-shot lead through the end of the second round Saturday morning, and raised it to six early in the third round. Weir stood on the ninth tee Saturday afternoon at 7-under par, and no one else had dipped below 2-under since the round began.

But this is Augusta National, where the years have taught us that the tournament really doesn't start until the 10th tee on Sunday. Once every generation a Jack Nicklaus (1965) or a Raymond Floyd (1976) or a Tiger Woods (1997) runs away from the field. Weir may be a two-time winner this year. He may be ranked 10th in the world. But he couldn't maintain that sprint, not when he had to run through Amen Corner to do so.

When Weir left the door to contention open by hitting into the hazard at No. 11 and into Rae's Creek at No. 13, one star after another barged through. Mark down the start of this Masters at 5:50 p.m. ET on Saturday afternoon. In rapid succession, Weir, at 5-under, hit a 3-iron into Rae's Creek. Vijay Singh, at 2-under, rolled his tee shot at the par-3 16th within two feet of the cup. And, yes, Tiger Woods, back from the edge of missing the cut, dropped his approach at the par-4 seventh at tap-in range.

Game on. After bayonet points and Ku Klux Klansmen, after three rounds that could be described as the un-Masters -- cold, dank weather; threesomes going off the 10th tee; golf called because of darkness -- the final round will begin with six of the top 10 players in the World Golf Ranking within five shots of the lead. That's the tournament that we have been waiting for. It got that way because the personality of Augusta National broke through as clearly as the sun on this spectacular spring afternoon.

"This golf course, the way it's set up, with two short par-5s on the back nine, there can be a lot of change in a short period of time," said leader Jeff Maggert, who's at 5-under 211. "All of a sudden, you've made a move on the leaders."

David Toms birdied four out of five holes on the back. Singh birdied three out of five. Weir made four bogeys in a back-nine 39. Suddenly, The Masters came into focus. Four shots out of the lead are Woods (No. 1), two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal and Phil Mickelson (No. 4).

Three shots back are Singh (No. 6), a two-time major champion, including the 2000 Masters, and Toms, the 2001 PGA winner (No. 7).

Two back is Weir (No. 10), third on the money list this season, and a player who has come from behind in each of his five career victories.

"It might free me up a little bit more (Sunday)," Weir said of being in second, "maybe be a little bit more aggressive. I don't know what it was with my iron play today. I was just a little bit hesitant. I didn't feel as comfortable and in the flow with my iron play."

Asked for an example, Weir demurred. "I don't want to delve too far into that, to tell you the truth," he said.

Weir might be better off not thinking about his round Saturday. It may have been the law of averages or it may just have been the law of Augusta National. Water and golf talent find their level here. The mud outside the ropes and the names on the leaderboard prove as much.

That's even true for Maggert, the bran cereal in this elaborate Sunday brunch. The veteran finished his round of 66 with uncharacteristic flair, birdieing five of the last six holes. Maggert has made a career of hanging around without ever managing to get in front. The 39-year-old has made more Ryder Cup teams (three) than he has won PGA Tour events (two). He has finished second or third 24 times in his career. It's a figurative black eye that Maggert doesn't need, not when he's playing with a real one, a shiner he got while wrestling with his kids last week.

"My wife is in pretty good shape, too," Maggert cracked. "I'm finding out I'm not the boss in my house."

Maggert has finished in the top four in five majors, including a third place at the 2002 U.S. Open. It's a credit to a game that is long on accuracy, if not long. Weir has the same sort of game. On a course where the margins of error are measured in feet, their games must be spot on. Maybe Augusta National demands so much because its standards are so high. That's why the surge of top names to the top of the leaderboard felt so reassuring. After a difficult week, at long last, The Masters has finally begun.

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