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Archive for Saturday, April 12, 2003

Surprising start to Masters

Weir, Clarke early leaders at Augusta

April 12, 2003

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— Anyone who thought the Masters would return to normal Friday only had to see Tiger Woods lick his finger to chalk up his first birdie -- on his 22nd hole.

Or take a look at the top of the leaderboard and find Mike Weir. The little lefty from Canada made short work of a long, soggy Augusta National course that was supposed to be a haven for big hitters.

Not far behind was burly Darren Clarke, puffing away on his cigars and dispelling any notion that only the fittest survive when trying to cram two rounds into one day.

Jack Nicklaus had his worst score in 2,235 rounds on tour -- an 85 that couldn't even beat Arnold Palmer.

That wasn't so bad.

Woods couldn't even beat an amateur.

After four days of rain, the Masters finally got under way. And except for a long day of work, it was hardly what anyone expected.

Woods, trying to become the first player to win three straight green jackets, went 21 holes before making a birdie and opened with a 76, his highest first-round score ever in a major championship.

He clawed his way back into the hunt, but was still eight strokes out of the lead, at 2 over par, with eight holes remaining when he returns today.

"I've still got a chance at this tournament and there's a long way to go," Woods said. "The leaders aren't going to run away and hide here with the way the conditions are."

Weir, 5-foot-8 and not considered one of the longer hitters, relied on the shortest club in his bag. He made all the important putts, several to save par, and finished his long day with consecutive birdies to reach 6 under par.

Clarke opened with a 66 for a three-shot lead -- the largest after 18 holes in 21 years at the Masters -- before back-to-back bogeys dropped him to 4 under par. He will start today on the 11th hole.

The more famous southpaw -- Phil Mickelson -- looks like he'll have yet another crack at winning his first major. He opened with a 73, then birdied four of his first five holes and finished his long day at 2-under par with seven holes left.

Mickelson wasn't in the best mood. He tossed his visor to the ground when the horn sounded to stop play because he wanted to tee off on the tricky par-3 12th hole.

"We wanted to play 12 ... because very rarely do we get it in that calm of conditions," he said.

The only other guy in red numbers came from Woods' group, and it wasn't the two-time defending champion.

U.S. Amateur champion Ricky Barnes stole the show after getting some key advice from Woods: "Just enjoy yourself."

Barnes shot a 69 in the first round and was at 1 under par. He and Woods start today on the par-5 second hole.

Woods is trying to make history, but this isn't what he had in mind.

Not only was it his highest first-round score in a major since turning pro, it was his worst start at any PGA Tour-sanctioned event since a 76 in the 1998 Western Open. Even more ominous: No Masters champion has ever started with worse than a 75.

Still, as sunshine finally broke through the clouds in the afternoon, Woods slowly worked himself back into the hunt with three birdies on the back nine. He was 2 over par, sitting on the bench at the par-5 second hole, when the horn sounded to stop play.

"Obviously, I'd like to be a little better than I am, but I'm on the right track," Woods said. "I made some progress. I've still got a chance."

Woods has never broken 70 in the first round, but he has never been this slow out of the gates. Woods was 10 strokes out of the lead after 18 holes, a deficit that no Masters champion has ever made up in the tournament's 66 years.

He might have known what was coming on the first hole. Woods chipped past the hole and over the green, and his par chip climbed up the hill and then rolled back to his feet. His third chip was perfect, falling for an improbable bogey.

"I had so much practice pitching, I figured I'll just pitch in," Woods said.

He had a lot of practice with patience, too.

He dropped to his knees when birdie putts slid by the hole, pulled his cap over his face when par putts did the same and, at times, looked as if he would rather be anywhere but on the course he has dominated the last two years.

"I didn't hit the ball that bad, I just didn't make any putts," Woods said.

He was exasperated when a good tee shot on No. 10 picked up a clump of mud, a typical occurrence at Augusta National after four days of rain. Woods angrily banged his fists together when he saw the grime, then uttered, "Oh, mud!" when his approach shot squirted off to the right and into a bunker -- another bogey.

Woods wasn't alone in his misery.

Fifteen of the 77 players who had played the Masters before walked off with their worst score ever at Augusta, the most noticeable being Nicklaus.

"The course wasn't much of a problem," Nicklaus said. "I was."

The six-time champion had an 85 -- his previous worst was an 81 in wind-swept conditions three years ago -- and was well on his way to missing the cut for only the fifth time in 43 trips to the Masters.

Palmer had an 83 and got one of the loudest cheers of the 12-hour day -- saving bogey with a 12-foot putt on his first hole of his 49th Masters.

The galleries didn't see all those shots. Most of the time, their eyes were on the ground as they tried to navigate muck so thick it almost pulled off their shoes.

Indeed, it was tough on everyone. The average first-round score -- 76.2 -- was the highest at the Masters since 1988.

Woods can attest to that. He failed to make a birdie for the first time since Saturday at Carnoustie in the 1999 British Open, and his 76 ended his string of 10 consecutive rounds under par at Augusta National.

The second round will resume at 8:20 a.m. EDT, and Woods isn't the only guy who needs to pull it together.

Ernie Els, who opened the year with two victories in Hawaii and added two more in Australia, bogeyed his first two holes and shot a 79. The Big Easy rallied in the afternoon with three birdies and was hovering around the cut line.

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