A cold, wet blanket of fog, steady rain and gusting winds lay over the Augusta National, turning today's first round into perhaps the most brutally unpleasant day of golf in the history of the Masters.
Of the 40 men in the field of 76 who completed play before the whistle blew at 4:29 p.m., calling all this sadomasochism to a halt, only one player could equal par--'80 champ Fuzzy Zoeller.
In fact, of the "Masters" brave enough to post their scores, the field average was 77.6--higher than any of the legendarily awful rounds at the TPC at Sawgrass. The field's worst-ball score was 115, led by a second-hole quadruple bogey 9 by Billy Casper, who missed a two-foot putt, then watched in horror as the ball rolled 30 feet past the hole.
"Oh, it's beautiful out there. The sun's out," spoofed Zoeller, who had six birdies, six pars and six bogeys in his bizarre round. "What you hear on that (tin) roof isn't really rain. It's just a squirrel cuttin' nuts . . . I never get upset about this stupid game. Hell, the last (competitive) round I shot was an 84 (last week at Greensboro). After that, I feel like I shot 62 today."
Few folks ended this anti-Masters day with Zoeller's cheerfulness.
With thermometers registering in the low 40s and the instruments that measure greens speeds registering in the psychedelic low teens, only seven players could break 75: Greg Norman, Peter Oosterhuis, Morris Hatalsky and Gay Brewer at 73, plus Ben Crenshaw and Mark Hayes at 74.
The only players who ended this bitterly raw day in a happy mood were, ironically, the 36 men who were trapped on the course and drenched by a huge, sky-splitting deluge at 4:24 that put every green under water within minutes.
Their cause for joy was the simple fact that they'll get to continue play from their point of interruption at 7:30 a.m. on Friday when, they assume, conditions cannot possibly be worse and will probably be measurably better.
And who are these fellows who, the weatherman says, will finish their round on a day with light rain into the afternoon, then clearing skies?
Why, the cream of the crop: Tom Watson and Craig Stadler who were one under par after nine holes, plus Jack Nicklaus and amateur Jodie Mudd, who were even par after 10. Nicklaus even stalled for more than half an hour, asking for spurious, but legal, rulings on casual water in the fairway at the 10th, as he prayed for heavier rain.
"About six groups of us were backed up for two holes behind Jack," said Tom Kite, "but none of us were complainin'. We knew what he was doing."
In effect, these upper-income nonfinishers survived half-a-round today and may get a chance to open ground on the field on Friday.
Other big names left on the course in decent striking position at one over par with plenty of holes left to play were: George Burns, Bruce Lietzke, John Mahaffey and Jack Renner (all through seven holes), Kite (through nine), Seve Ballesteros (13) and David Graham (15).
By painful contrast with these still-in-contention fellows, seven players couldn't break 80, including Lon Hinkle (81), John Cook (82), Casper (85), Jim Thorpe (88) and Frank Conner, who took the booby prize with a mind-boggling 89 in his first round since winning $32,400 for finishing second at Harbor Town just two weeks ago. "I lost interest and said, 'The hell with it,' " said Conner, who had 49 on the back nine to record (unofficially) the highest score in Masters history.
In danger is the dubious-achievement Masters' record of highest score by a first-round leader--71 by Jack Burke Jr., in 1957. Folks hereabouts can only remember two Masters days approaching this one for bona fide lousy--the second round in '54, when nobody broke par, and the first round in '36, when only one player broke par.
With the combination of unpredictable wind, penetrating cold, poor visibility, constant drizzle or outright rain, wet club grips, slick greens, heavy air, soft fairways, mud on the ball and nasty pin placements, this was the all-time day for moanin' at the Masters.
"We shouldn't have played today. It's just not golf," said Georgian Larry Nelson (79). "I think it's the pressure of TV (to get in 36 holes before Saturday, so weekend coverage won't be disrupted) that forced us to play today. I think it's a shame . . . This golf course is unplayable today, but then I don't have money coming in from CBS. They'll get this round in one way or the other . . .I've played in worse rain and worse cold, but never the combination. For me, there were eight par-fives out there.
"Nobody drafted me to be a golfer, but I still say we shouldn't have played. It got to the point where you didn't care if you hit it or not."
Nelson's opinion was in the minority. Even Conner said, "Oh, sure, you've gotta go ahead and play. It's not dangerous. The course was playable."
"It's pretty easy to start thinkin', 'What are we doing out here? When are we going to stop?' " said Danny Edwards (75). "But it's also a test of will and stamina and maybe strength, because the course plays so unbelievably long."
Would Edwards, who is also a race car driver, have gotten behind the wheel of a Formula I on a day like this?
"We'd have raced today," he said, "but at least we'd have had rain tires."
Curiously, this day's atrociously difficult conditions may actually have given a truer test of golf and athleticism than the Masters sometimes offers. The players who survived this wet examination were, by and large, among the hardiest and toughest looking guys on tour--the likes of Zoeller, Watson, Stadler, Nicklaus, Ballesteros and Graham.
While others were moping, or, like Johnny Miller, running to the clubhouse after nine holes for a change of clothes (he immediately triple-bogeyed the 10th and shot 78), Zoeller was laughing with the crowds while he wore his hat sideways and Nicklaus was munching a banana and kibitzing as though the sun were out.
Adversity? What adversity?
As Hale Irwin (two over through eight) put it, "I'm just pretending that the British Open has come early."
When asked whether the weather was just too nasty for poor little golfers to be asked to perform, Zoeller said, "Hell, no. Let 'em play.
"I had a two-foot putt on the 16th hole," added Zoeller, "and I just touched it and it rolled eight feet past the hole."
So, what did he do?
"Just made it comin' back," he said.
That's how you lead the most beautiful golf tournament in the world on its ugliest day.