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MOTHER NATURE TURNS MASTERS INTO A MESS

The 69th Masters got stuck in the mud Friday for another mostly dreary day of rain and occasional thunder and lightning hovering over saturated Augusta National Golf Club. They did manage to get the first round completed in the morning, with Chris DiMarco the official 18-hole leader after finishing off a 5-under-par 67, good for a one-shot advantage over Vijay Singh, the world's top-ranked player, and Englishman Luke Donald, playing Augusta for the first time.

But not a single player was able to complete the second round when play, initially suspended at 12:40 p.m., was halted for good at 4 p.m. Radar detected another storm cell heading toward the golf course.

The entire field will have to resume play at 8:30 this morning, when the weather is expected to take a turn for the better. Television coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. (Ch. 4).

When the signal halting play echoed across the course, three men were tied for the lead at 5-under par -- DiMarco, Donald and another Englishman, David Howell. Howell actually played eight holes on his second round and birdied five of them to pull into contention. Donald played two second-round holes, making birdie at the second to get a share of the lead, and DiMarco had made par on the first hole before heading for cover.

Most players have become accustomed to this sort of routine on the PGA Tour this season. Weather has forced suspensions of play or the cancellation of rounds at nine of 15 tournaments. The BellSouth Classic last week in Atlanta was a 54-hole event and didn't end until Monday. The week before, the Players Championship also was not completed until Monday afternoon.

"We need to find out where all the drought-stricken countries are, and for $10 million, we'll take a PGA tournament there. That would take care of things," said veteran Nick Price, who said he fell asleep in the locker room during Friday's delay "just like all the other old guys. I've never been involved in this many rain delays."

The best-case scenario today would involve completing the entire third round by sundown. The weekend forecast calls for dry and possibly sunny conditions, according to Will Nicholson, the club's competition committee chairman.

"It looked pretty good today, so you can come to your own conclusion," he said, adding that 4 inches of rain fell in a five-day span at the end of March, and deluges Thursday and Friday have dumped more water than the course can hold.

In the three-hour morning window when play did go on, DiMarco, who completed 14 holes Thursday, birdied the first hole he played, the 180-yard No. 6, knocking a 6-iron within an inch of an ace. He finished with three pars to claim the sole 18-hole lead. DiMarco also led the Masters after the first 18 holes in 2001, the first year he played, and also had the 54-hole lead a year ago before fading to a tie for sixth Sunday.

Singh made morning birdies at the 13th and 14th, two-putting from 50 feet at the 510-yard 13th and hitting a glorious second shot to within 3 feet at the 440-yard 14th and making the birdie putt. He had another decent birdie chance, this one at the 500-yard 15th, which he reached in two. But he three-putted for par, missing a 4-foot effort that never even grazed the cup. He parred in for a round of 68.

Defending Masters champion Phil Mickelson, a three-time winner already this season, also was very much in the mix. He birdied the 155-yard 12th hole in the morning with a 6-foot putt, then gave a shot back when he missed a 5-foot par putt at the 14th hole. He parred in for a round of 2-under 70, good for a tie for seventh place, and never started the second round.

Tiger Woods, who started the day 2 over, finished the first round with a 74, with two birdies and two bogeys on his remaining six holes. One of those bogeys came at the uphill 570-yard No. 8 after Woods pushed his drive into the trees down the right side. He tried a dangerous second shot through the tiniest of openings that only he could possibly have seen. Then he got very lucky when his ball hit another tree and caromed dead left into the fairway. A ricochet right was double- or triple-bogey territory.

Ernie Els also had more problems and finished with a 75.

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