Wet weather will affect The Masters
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- A Masters that started out as a U.S. Open, with only Chad Campbell more than three strokes under par after 36 holes, turned into a British Open on Saturday when foul weather blew players off Augusta National Golf Club and threatened to turn Sunday into a marathon finish.
Even before the gates to the club were opened, tournament officials were telling local radio stations to warn patrons to remain in their cars as a storm approached. Then, shortly after 7 a.m. the skies opened. Play still began as scheduled at 10:40, despite intermittent squalls, only to be suspended at 1:05 p.m. when dangerous weather -- read that lightning -- moved into the area.
One of the many magnificent qualities of Augusta National is that it has sub-air drying systems under all of the greens, allowing them to maintain their treacherous speed despite the rain, and under some of the low-lying fairways, keep them mud free. Apparently, at Augusta National, not even the casual water is casual. This is a place of tradition, and one of the traditions is that the show must go on. Electrical storms, however, are something not even the men in the green jackets can control and, if the forecasters are even reasonably close, a good chunk of today's play will splash on over into tomorrow.
As it was, and as it always seems to be at The Masters, the leaderboard heading into the weekend was littered with good stories. With all the talk of how the bombers would dominate the newly lengthened Augusta National, the 36-hole leader was a shotmaker: Campbell. But lurking close enough were the entire Big Five -- long hitters all -- and the feeling still hangs in the humid air that the winner will ultimately emerge from that group. Vijay Singh was among the trio at 141, three strokes behind Campbell. Among the quintet at 142 were Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, while Retief Goosen and Tiger Woods were at 143.
The fact that all of the Big Five were under par going into the week does not bode well for the Cinderella stories on the leader board. While Campbell has the ability to run away from the field, it appears as if the difficulty of the course will make it unlikely anyone will hide from the pack. A couple of past champions -- 46-year-old Fred Couples and 54-year-old Ben Crenshaw -- would both be the oldest Masters winners ever (Couples edging Jack Nicklaus by a few months), but the reality is that the five best players in the world are positioned perfectly going into the final 36 holes to take home the green jacket, and it's difficult to bet against them.
One of the other delightful traditions at The Masters is the small field, and the fact only 47 players were left going into the week meant that even if Saturday's play is completely wiped out, it is still possible two rounds could be played on Sunday -- when the forecast is for spectacular weather -- and the tournament completed on time, without a Monday finish. If a double-round finish were the case it might be an advantage to those players in the best physical condition, and the best of the best, fitness-wise, is Woods.
While Woods trailed Campbell by five strokes with 36 holes to play, he was only two strokes out of second place. A marathon finish on a course softened by rain all seems to play into the hands of the man trying for his fifth green jacket. In fact, if the rain significantly softens the 7,450-yard Augusta National layout, that's good news for all of the Big Five. The long hitters have even more of an advantage at Augusta National when the fairways are not yielding much roll.
Among those who got out early on Saturday and got some holes in before play was stopped, Spaniards Miguel Angel Jimenez and two-time Masters champion Jose Maria Olazabal, played their way back into the tournament. Jimenez was 2 under through six holes and had gotten back to even par for the tournament, while Olazabal shot a 34 on the front nine to climb to 1 over through 45 holes. Tim Herron played seven holes 2 under and was also one over when play was halted.
Among those going the other direction on Saturday were Sergio Garcia, who was 2 over through five holes to fall to four over par; Luke Donald, who also dropped two shots and was 4 over; and Stuart Appleby, who was 4 over through four holes and was 6 over for the tournament. The comeback player of the event so far, Mark Hensby, continued his climb to respectability. Hensby followed his 80 in the first round with a 67 and was 1 under through seven holes on Saturday to get to two over for the tournament.
Weather, clearly, is one of the forces beyond the control of Augusta National. While fully grown stands of trees can materialize almost overnight at the Masters, lightning cannot be made to go away at the flick of a green jacket. Still, even as play was delayed, this one thing was a fact hammered home by history year after year: The finish of the Masters is always worth waiting for.
Ron Sirak is the executive editor of Golf World magazine
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