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MASTERS Soaked Augusta unpredictable



Published: Sun, April 13, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Rain postponed the first round until Friday.

THE ORLANDO SENTINEL

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Balls will squirt and swerve left and right, as if the golf clubs at the Masters are being wielded by garden-variety hacks from the most raggedy of municipal tracks.

As play began today at rain-sopped Augusta National, in some ways the unpredictable will be predictable. As the golf ball takes flight, around and around it'll go, but where it stops, nobody knows.

Today's first round was postponed until Friday because of continuing rain.

The course has been soaked by more than 3 inches of rain this week. That means players not only must navigate a discouragingly long golf course but wade through the mire and cat litter -- which has been scattered about to suck up the muck.

Field shortchanged

On a golf course that now favors players who hit long shots, long-shot contenders need not apply.

The course has been lengthened 300 yards since 2001 to a robust 7,290. The lengthening and the conditions, realistically, have at least halved the field and eliminated the short hitters.

"Now it's just long and brutal," Tiger Woods said.

That essentially describes his reign hereabouts. Woods is seeking to become the first player to win three consecutive green jackets and is aiming for his fourth victory at Augusta since 1997. Even the elements appear in proper alignment for another victory.

"As you have seen, the course has taken just about all the water it can take," said Will Nicholson, the tournament committee chairman.

That means Woods and the rest of the limited list of bombers will tee it high and let it fly.

"It's going to be very difficult," six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus said, "for anybody who doesn't hit it gorilla-style."

An army of groundskeepers has been spreading what has been euphemistically entitled "drying agents" on the course in the heavily traveled fan areas. The course is so wet that hand mowers have been used to trim the fairways because the riding mowers would leave tire ruts. Though more thunderstorms were in today's forecast, Nicholson said players definitely won't be allowed to lift and clean the ball.

Difficulty

Some would like to lift, clean and heave it forward. Arnold Palmer, who unretired this year, was rethinking his rethinking.

"It's that hard," he said. "It's long. But I'm going to tee it up because I said I would. I've made mistakes before."

Woods typically hasn't, even when the skies have unloaded. Last year, when it rained at the Masters and U.S. Open, Woods won. It rained this year at the Bay Hill Invitational, World Match Play and Buick Invitational. Woods won those, too.

There was that 81 in the driving rain at the British Open last year, but otherwise, rain doesn't bother him.

"I do like playing in tough conditions," Woods said.

"It doesn't mean you always play well, but I enjoy that challenge. I don't get bummed out, put it that way, when conditions are tough.

"You know, it's rained at every single event I've played in this year. Maybe I should stop playing."

For the other 92 players, that sounds like a grand idea. It's hard to pick who rates as the No. 2 favorite among the traditional Masters contenders. Ernie Els says his sore wrist has mended and Davis Love III won in emphatic fashion two weeks ago at The Players Championship, but both players have failed to deliver on Sundays in Augusta.

Phil Mickelson, after a month-long layoff, shot 79 in the second round last week in Atlanta and missed the cut. Sergio Garcia has missed three consecutive stroke-play cuts.

"Well, we're just going to have to hope that we catch him [Woods] on an off-week when he's not playing too well," said Retief Goosen. "That's about it, I think."




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