Golf: Leonard and Lyle try to break rules

US Masters: Overnight rain delays proceedings by 90 minutes but tradition is upheld as past champions get play under way at Augusta
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The Independent Online
GIVEN the contortions required both to present and be presented with a Green Jacket, it is lucky that the task of retaining the Masters title has proved so difficult. Just two men, Jack Nicklaus in 1966 and Nick Faldo in 1990, have won back-to-back here at Augusta National.

Tiger Woods is fully aware of the statistic but less well known was that no one had ever retained the Par-three Tournament until Sandy Lyle did on Wednesday afternoon. Lyle, who beat Mark McNulty in a play-off last year, scored a three-under-par 24 on the nine-hole course in the traditional curtain-raiser to the Masters.

A thunderstorm cut short the event leaving Lyle holding the so-called Par-three jinx: no one has ever gone on to win the tournament proper in the same week. As the 1988 Masters champion and someone who has not won on a Sunday since the Volvo Masters in 1992, the win is unlikely to damage the 40-year-old Scot's hopes of winning more than the fact that he has missed five cuts in eight events this season. He dropped four strokes on his first six holes.

More overnight rain delayed the start of the Masters by an hour and a half and scuppering the tournament officials' usual intention of making the greens as hard and fast as possible. "I'm not real happy to see the rain," Justin Leonard said. "I really enjoy playing firm and fast golf courses."

The worse news for Leonard is that the Players champion, a title he claimed two weeks ago, has also never doubled up at the Masters. The Open champion, however, does have a get-out clause in the immutable rule that he always wins when he is five behind going into the final round. Such was the case at Sawgrass and Royal Troon, as well as at the Kemper Open before that.

"I would not consider it a lock," said the 25-year-old from Dallas. "I would rather be two behind, or two ahead, actually." Knowing it is possible, however, makes Leonard, an inspirational putter on his day, a dangerous charger. "I get so involved with the task of trying to hit good shots and move up the leaderboard that I don't necessarily think too much about winning the tournament until the last couple of holes."

Leonard finished seventh at Augusta last year but returns this time not just with the security of already having won a major, but also with the extra length off the tee that has come from a switch from a persimmon to a metal driver and more time in the gym.

"I wasn't aware there was a theory that length is everything," he said. "It that was true, I probably would not be sitting here as a major winner.

"Sure, length is a great asset and more so on some courses. I've noticed a difference in where I am hitting the ball here from last year. But I don't think length has ever been everything or ever will be."

Before the main contenders started their campaigns in the afternoon, another Masters tradition dictates that Gene Sarazen, 96, Byron Nelson, 86, and Sam Snead, 85, all hit balls off the first tee. Snead managed a blow of 190 yards despite having come out of hospital the day before.

The three-time Masters champion complained of feeling dizzy while being driven up from Florida on Tuesday and had to miss the champions' dinner. "At least it gave other people the chance to tell a few stories," Jackson Stephens, the Augusta chairman, said.

The early starters are also some of the more venerable competitors, allowing Gay Brewer, at 66, to briefly hold the clubhouse lead with a level-par 72. Brewer, the 1967 champion but a man who has missed the cut on 23 of his previous 35 appearances, birdied the 16th and the 17th to record his best round at Augusta for 15 years.

But Brewer's playing partner, the 1957 winner Doug Ford, did not cope with the swirling wind so well. The 75-year-old who holds the record for the most appearances in the event at 46 and counting, shot a 14-over-par 86.

The first-round draw is loaded with the modern stars late in the day because television is only allowed to show two and a half hours on the first three days and three hours of the final round. That means the front nine remains the private preserve of the Augusta patrons, an exclusive party the waiting list for which was closed several years ago.

Stephens also had another reason. "We get letters from women who don't play golf but say they can devote two and a half hours to watching the Masters," he revealed. "We lose them with a five-hour telecast."

It is a novel way of deciding how your major sporting event should be televised and hopefully it will not catch on. Stephens was asked whether he watched the Super Bowl. "The fourth quarter," he replied.