- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 9, 2006

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters is braced for another chaotic conclusion.

For the second consecutive year, Saturday storms at Augusta National led to a near-washout of third-round action, meaning the tournament’s contenders will face a 27-hole-plus finale today on the soaked 7,445-yard, par-72 layout.

Despite a four-hour delay that pushed the final pairing’s tee time back until nearly 7 p.m., a handful of elite challengers made the most of their limited third-round whacks as the Fab Five pack of Tiger Woods (3 under), Vijay Singh (2 under), Phil Mickelson (3 under), Retief Goosen (2 under) and Ernie Els (2 under) generally crept closer to 36-hole leader Chad Campbell (6 under).

Campbell, the 31-year-old Texan with just one top-10 finish in 16 previous major starts, surged to 8 under after opening his third round with point-blank birdies at Nos. 1 and 2. But Campbell staggered in the gloaming, following with approach-shot errors and bogeys at Nos. 3 and 4 to slide back to the field before the horn sounded just before 7:50 p.m. to put an end to the day’s truncated play.

“It was a long day — a long day for four holes,” said Campbell, whose only notable major result was a runner-up finish to Shaun Micheel at the 2003 PGA Championship at Oak Hill. “Obviously, I would have liked for the day to go a little smoother, but the weather didn’t cooperate. … The only bad shot I hit was the approach on No. 3. That was a pretty big mistake.”

Campbell came up well short of the green on the layout’s shortest and easiest par 4 after catching a wedge fat, then missed an 8-foot par bid and ended his short day on another sour note after finding the left bunker off the tee at the beastly par-3 fourth.

Campbell and the 36 other members of the 47-man field who failed to finish their third rounds will return to the course today for a 7:45 a.m. restart. USA Network will televise the conclusion of the third round beginning at 8 a.m., a decision undoubtedly influenced by the fact that Woods challenged the course record (63) and took command of the event with a 65 during an almost identical Sunday-morning restart last year that was not televised.

The field will be repaired with an estimated 2:30 p.m. start time slated for the event’s final twosome.

Given the way Woods started yesterday, playing his opening nine in 2 under, don’t be surprised if similar early morning fireworks are on the docket for the World No. 1 today. Taking advantage of the softer, receptive greens, the 30-year-old Woods, in search of his fifth green jacket and 11th major title, nearly holed a wedge on the par-4 fourth to reach 2-under and then executed a brilliantly judged spinning pitch to the par-5 eighth for a kickaway birdie that nudged him to 3-under.

“I’m right there in the ballgame,” Woods said. “Short game shots are so much easier now because [the greens] grabbing and holding, whereas before they were kind of skidding and repelling. … If you get it rolling, you can shoot some good numbers out here, especially with it being so soft.”

Though Augusta National’s unique system of subterranean green vacuums should leave the course slightly less susceptible than it was during yesterday afternoon’s brief, field-wide birdie barrage, there’s no chance that the planet’s most diabolical putting surfaces will regain the daunting fire they exhibited before the cut. But the soft, wet fairways should definitely play to the advantage of longer hitters like Woods and the other members of the Big Five. After two rounds of firm, fast fairways opening up the leader board to short-knocking salvos, Augusta National once again should be a big hitter’s paradise for today’s extended finale.

That’s not to say shorter players like South Africa’s Tim Clark (5 under), American veteran Rocco Mediate (5 under) and Ireland’s Padraig Harrington (4 under) have no chance. But with none of the four players at the top of the board boasting either prodigious length or a major among their credentials, the golf world will largely be focused on expected charges from Woods and the rest of the Fab Five.

“Obviously, those guys do have a lot more major experience with their wins, but I’d like to start somewhere,” said Campbell, who does have three PGA Tour victories on his resume. “It’s going to be tough. Walking this course for 18 holes takes a lot out of you, so going 32 holes is going to be a chore. But I don’t think winning a major is ever easy.”

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