- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 9, 2005

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Mother Nature is still winning the 69th Masters.

A stingy storm system and some equally stubborn greencoats combined to doom yesterday’s expected action at Augusta National. Those factors allowed just three hours of play to take place on day two of the world’s most prestigious golf tournament, leaving a muddled leader board as the Masters heads into the weekend with barely more than one round in the books.

“This entire season has been something of a disaster, so why should this week be any different,” said Chris DiMarco, who completed his first-round 67 and was tied for the lead at 5 under with Brits Luke Donald and David Howell when play was called for the day at 4 p.m. after more than a three-hour weather delay. “We’re all pretty used to it by now unfortunately. … Sure, it’s frustrating, because it seems like we’ve had weather problems at every event this year. But it would be worse if I wasn’t playing well.”

Second-round play is scheduled to resume at 8:30 this morning. The field then will be cut to the low 44 and ties, re-paired and sent back onto the course. The hope is that the event will be back on track with 54 holes completed by the end of today’s play. The limited field and two-tee start makes that a very reasonable goal, assuming the weather complies for the first time since Wednesday.

Like most of the field, DiMarco had completed just one second-round hole when the horn sounded just before 12:45 p.m. yesterday, heralding the arrival of showers that pounded the 7,290-yard, par-72 layout for more than a hour. And even though the precipitation halted at 2 p.m., tournament officials were hesitant to restart play given satellite images that showed potential electrical activity in the immediate area.

“If you had a compass, and you took the sharp point and stuck it in Augusta and drew a circle around it, we had a little high pressure system sitting right here but not hitting us,” said Will Nicholson, the chairman of Augusta National’s competition committee. “Mother Nature has not treated us too well.”

The greencoats didn’t do themselves any favors, however, by delaying yesterday’s start times until 9:45 a.m., missing out on more than two hours of premium playing time. According to Nicholson, the competition committee hoped to use the time to mow the fairways, which hadn’t been cut since Wednesday morning. It was later determined that it was still too wet to mow, so a large chunk of playing time was forfeited over an aborted shave that wasn’t necessary in the first place.

Howell and Donald dominated the limited action that did take place. Both were rookies on Europe’s successful Ryder Cup team at Oakland Hills. And both are attempting the near-unthinkable this week at Augusta National — winning the Masters in their first start. Since the inaugural event, only one player has managed that feat, Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979.

“Obviously, knowing this course is beneficial,” said the 27-year-old Donald, a native of Hempstead, England, who has six top-15 finishes in just seven PGA Tour starts this season. “But you know, I’m coming into this week playing as good as I’ve ever played. So in that way, I feel very prepared. … I’ll take form over experience any day.”

Howell, one of the few players who actually managed to complete a serious hunk of his second round, started the day at level par but did some freestyle up the board with a brilliant opening to his second loop. Starting on the back nine, Howell birdied Nos. 10, 11, 13, 15 and 16 before the rains put a halt to his charge after eight holes.

“I’m delighted with my day’s work, even though it was only eight holes of golf,” said the 29-year-old, who has just one European Tour victory to his credit (1999 Dubai) though he did roll up 17 top-25 finishes last year. “You don’t know what’s around the corner in golf. It might turn out to be a great thing for me that we stopped.”

Though the British bulldogs and the weather provided most of the day’s sparks, the Fab Four created some indoor fireworks when defending champion Phil Mickelson (2 under) and world No. 1 Vijay Singh (4 under) exchanged heated words in the locker room during the weather delay.

Singh, playing one group behind Mickelson during the morning conclusion of first-round play, thought Lefty was damaging the greens with his spikes. In a move typical of the game’s most prickly and least beloved player, Singh conveyed his concern to tournament officials, who approached Mickelson after he completed the 13th hole to make certain there wasn’t a burr on one of his spikes.

“I was extremely distracted and would have appreciated if it would have been handled differently or after the round,” said Mickelson, who was found to have no such burr on any of his spikes but offered to switch them anyway. “After sitting in the locker room for a while, I heard Vijay talking to other players about it, and I confronted him. He expressed his concerns. I expressed my disappointment with the way it was handled. I believe everything is fine now.”

If the weather clears and the fates intervene, the world might get to see the two swap more than barbs over the weekend.

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