-- This already star-crossed 67th Masters Tournament took yet another bizarre turn for the worse today. Shortly before 11 a.m., tournament officials were forced to postpone the opening round for the first time since 1939 after four days of atrocious weather had dumped almost four inches of rain on Augusta National.

This first major championship of the year will be remembered for the raging rhetoric and protests scheduled Saturday over the club's all-male membership. Now, it also will go down as one of the messiest Masters in history, with this past Monday's practice round cancelled because of standing water on the golf course.

"We believe this golf course is unplayable," said Will Nicholson, chairman of the tournament's competition committee. "This golf course will just not take any more water."

Players will be asked to slog through 36 holes Friday to complete the first and second rounds. Despite going off the first and 10th tees for both rounds, some in the field of 93 likely won't finish until Saturday morning, and any further weather delays over the next three days could even necessitate a Monday finish. Sunny, breezy 70-degree weather is in the weekend forecast.

"I've never seen weather conditions like this in a major," Ernie Els said of the week-long deluge. "They probably made the right decision today. They'll do whatever they can to finish 72 holes, if we have to play on Tuesday."

Initially, officials were hoping to begin play today at 11 a.m. But with a light drizzle falling at that time, and heavier rain expected later in the day, they decided to halt the proceedings. Unlike Monday, when spectators were never even allowed to enter the premises, thousands had already streamed through the gates and could stay as long as they wished.

Monday's washout reportedly cost the club an estimated $3.5 million in lost revenues from its merchandise shop and concession stands. Today, many patrons waited in long lines to purchase souvenirs and $1 pimiento cheese sandwiches; others simply were content to walk around the golf course and take in the atmosphere of one of America's most storied venues, even at the cost of mud-splashed shoes and pant legs.

Most players were on the grounds when the decision was made to cancel. Some decided to hit balls at the practice range or work on their chipping or putting, but few planned to stay very long.

Els said he was going home to watch HBO. Tom Lehman and many others were heading to the movies. Chris DiMarco was planning an afternoon of gin rummy with his father and other family members. Jerry Kelly said he was "going to go out and eat a lot of Krispy Kremes."

All of them have been through these kinds of days before, but rarely in Augusta during Masters week. Since the tournament began in 1934, only six rounds have been washed out entirely. The last time it happened was in 1983, when the second round was postponed, necessitating only the fourth Monday finish in history.

The rain will have an obvious effect on the final outcome, with most predicting that the game's longest hitters -- including the already heavily favored defending champion, Tiger Woods -- will have a distinct advantage. Woods is trying to become the first to win three straight Masters.

"A lot less people have a chance to win now," said Scott Hoch, who said he would "have to play better than perfect" to prevail. "When they added the length last year [285 yards], that eliminated some guys. Now the weather eliminates even more guys. Someone who doesn't hit it long could win, but they'd have to be really good in everything else to have a chance."

Els also flies it high and deep but said during an 18-hole practice round Wednesday, he still needed a 4-iron to get home at the 465-yard 18th, where he usually hits 9-iron or wedge to the green. He said that shorter-hitting playing partner Nick Price needed a 4-wood second shot.

"This is going to be the ultimate test in endurance, patience and concentration," Els said. "This is also one of the most challenging courses we walk. Then you throw the greens in there, and it will be quite a test. You definitely want to be under 35 tomorrow."

There are many in the field far older, including 73-year-old Arnold Palmer, a four-time champion playing in his 49th straight Masters. He would like to extend the streak to 50 next year and then, perhaps, become an honorary starter in 2005.

"It's bad luck to have all this rain," said Tom Lehman, "but just to have [Palmer] playing, that's good luck for everyone. I don't think anyone cares how he plays or what he scores. The fact that he's here is what really matters."

The water-logged fairways will present problems for the entire field. Els said virtually every shot he hit Wednesday left mud on his golf ball. Augusta officials said today they will not permit players to lift, clean and place the ball in the fairway, as the PGA Tour usually allows under extremely wet conditions.

"We believe that's the traditional way to play the game, and that's the way we intend to play the game," Nicholson said today. He also sounded optimistic that the predicted better weekend weather would allow the tournament to conclude Sunday.

Mud on the ball "makes it a guessing game," Els said. "You never really know where the ball is going. If mud is on the right side [of the ball] and the pin is on the left side, you might have to start your shot over the bleachers and just guess which way it might go."

Most players today also said walking 36 holes is not as much a physical problem as it is taxing on the mind.

"If you're in good shape, and you happen to be playing good, you want to keep going," said Rocco Mediate. "And if you start off badly, it could also go the other way, and really make it a very long day. . . . Nah, the weather won't affect Tiger at all. Just what we need, right?"

At Augusta National, it is time to pack up and go after the first round of The Masters was called off because of rain.