Nice guys don't always finish last

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- On a day longer than the last day of school, on a course where the green jacket was supposedly reserved for long hitters only, Mike Weir, all 5-foot-9, 155 pounds of him, took control. On a day when only the tough-minded needed apply for the Masters lead, the nicest guy on the PGA Tour led by two when darkness forced him to quit.

"I told myself last night, 'I know it's going to be a long day,'" said Weir, 6-under through 30 holes when play ended Friday night. "There are just going to be delays, there's going to be a little wait between my first and second round, and not to let myself slide mentally. When your legs get tired it's easy to slip mentally, too."

The day began in a cold drizzle, evolved into a delightful sunny spring afternoon and ended in the gloaming. "Like a summer's day in Ireland, that was," said Darren Clarke of Northern Ireland, who led for most of the day and finished 4-under through 28 holes.

Clarke is built for Augusta National. He looks like a lorry rolling down the fairway, lorry being what we Yanks call a truck. Clarke leans slightly forward as he walks, a mass of shoulders and trunk. He has re-introduced the adjective "burly" to professional golf, a word that, in this era of physical fitness, had been consigned to the same dustbin as "niblick" and "stymie."

Clarke, one of the top players on the European Tour, has cemented his reputation as a good mate, at home in his neighborhood pub -- or yours. Weir is so nice that if he weren't Canadian, you'd fire up Google and type in "Personality Disorders." But as our friends up north show when they're digging pucks out of corners, they can be tough when they have to be.

Weir has come a long way from the guy who, paired with Tiger Woods in the final round of the 1999 PGA, fired an 80 and finished tied for 10th. He has won five PGA Tour events, two in 2003 -- the year of the bomber. The ball is longer, the clubs are longer, and the Masters leader is shorter than nearly everyone in the field.

"I'm not a bomber for sure," Weir said Friday night. "I have to make my wedge game work for me and rely on my putting and chipping and course management skills to really make some birdies on this course. The talk was (of) a bomber's week this week, but I felt like if you're still consistent, you have a good putter in your hand, that's the great equalizer."

Equalizer? He's two shots better than Clarke, four better than Phil Mickelson and five better than U.S. Amateur champion Ricky Barnes. That's it for the red numbers.

"It's the toughest course to play 36 on," said Brad Faxon, whose score of even par through 35 holes put him in a tie for fifth. "Guys are mad about not playing yesterday, mad about starting early, mad about trying to play 36 today and mad about the course."

Weir was mad only that he had to stop playing.

"I would have loved to have finished my round," he said. "I was in a nice flow with my game. I was hitting my targets."

Weir birdied the last two holes he played, Nos. 2 and 3, to switch positions with Clarke, who bogeyed his last two, Nos. 9 and 10. Clarke will go down in the record book as the first-round leader after his 6-under 66 beat the field by three. He could enjoy it for only 45 minutes, about as long as he enjoys those mid-round cigars, before he had to begin again.

Clarke got to that 6-under score in the first 12 holes he played, with his final two birdies, at Nos. 1 and 3, coming thanks to approach shots within 2 feet of the hole. The near tap-in at No. 1 took a tour of the lip of the cup before dropping, causing the gallery to react with an "Oooooo" before the obligatory applause.

Clarke stopped as he bent over to pick up the ball and looked at the patrons with a guilty grin on his face. As he walked off the green, he spread his arms, palms up, in a shrug that said, "Hey, it went in."

The golf world has waited for the 34-year-old to emerge as a major champion. Clarke first made his name in the United States when he upset Tiger Woods in the final of the 2000 Match Play. But he remained a step behind the top players in the game. He appears to be catching up.

When Clarke arrived in Southern California for the Match Play Championship, TaylorMade fit him with a new driver. That and a new Titleist ball have made him one of the longest players off the tee. A new pre-shot routine that he developed with the help of Dr. Bob Rotella has helped him focus on his game. And increased workouts, with an emphasis on flexibility, have helped Clarke as well. He refused to blame his bogey-bogey finish on fatigue.

"I got fairly big, thick, sturdy legs that will hopefully carry me around for the next few days," Clarke said.

Weir's legs aren't big, thick or sturdy. There are 92 golfers looking at the back of them who can vouch for that.

Ivan Maisel is a senior writer at ESPN.com. He can be reached at ivan.maisel@espn3.com.