Davis Love III looked like he was staring down a 6-foot putt in a playoff as he contemplated the question. If Tiger Woods is on his game, is everyone else at the Masters playing for second?

"I'm not even going to answer that," he finally responded, his steely eyes making it perfectly clear that while Woods may own a green jacket and the tournament scoring record, he doesn't own Augusta National.At least not yet.

The 62nd Masters began today with the same anticipation as when Woods' 4-foot par putt on the 72nd hole fell into the cup for a record 18-under-par 270 and a 12-stroke victory.

Augusta National officials didn't narrow the fairways and grow rough, the kind of conditions that tamed the Tiger in other major championships. They didn't make it longer or add more fairway bunkers or make a rule that Woods had to play with one arm tied behind his back.

There were a few tweaks to the course, but that's always the case. The message from the green coats simply was that if Woods can go even lower - and no one else can go with him - then so be it.

On a course softened by a late burst of rain Wednesday, Woods set out on his attempt to become only the third player to successfully defend his title.

And there were several hungry players in pursuit of him.

"I had that feeling last year until the final round, when I had that big lead," Woods said when asked if he felt the entire field was trying to hunt him down. "But this year, it's up for grabs. We're all here, and we've all got to play. We're all at even par and looking pretty good."

A year ago, when an already firm and fast course seemed to hit warp speed when the first round began, Woods toured the first nine holes in 40.

What he faced today figured to be a much more benign Augusta course, although the forecast calls for sunny, dry conditions when the weekend arrives.

The starting times, which were pushed back one hour when a storm system dumped 2 inches of rain, were delayed an additional 30 minutes this morning so the greens could dry out and crews would get the bunkers in shape.

The last twosome, Mark Brooks and Scott Simpson, was now set to go off at 4:12 p.m., making it possible darkness could fall before the first round was over.

"I really enjoy playing firm and fast golf courses," said Justin Leonard, who proved that by winning the British Open at Royal Troon and The Players Championship two weeks ago.

"I'm not real happy to see it raining, but the course plays the same for everybody."

It didn't seem that way last year, when Woods used his considerable length to his advantage. He didn't have anything more than a 6-iron into the par-4s and reached three of the par-5s with an 8-iron or less.

But part of the anticipation is whether Woods can have another perfect week on the penalizing greens. Woods never three-putted, and never missed a putt inside 10 feet.

"All you need to do is miss one of those things . . . and you start getting a little gun-shy on these greens," Tom Watson said.

If that's the case, any number of players could be ready to meet Woods' challenge.

Leonard, Love and Ernie Els have emerged as his chief rivals after winning the other three majors in 1997, while David Duval and Phil Mickelson are two others in their 20s who have the game, but not yet a major championship.

A generation behind are Nick Faldo, who believes his game is "ready for a burst," and Greg Norman, who hasn't played a competitive round in five weeks but no longer feels the pressure now placed on Woods.