By Mark Lamport-Stokes
MARANA, Arizona (Reuters) - Dove Mountain looked more like a winter wonderland than a high desert golf course on Wednesday after a blanket of snow forced play to be abandoned in the opening round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship.
Just over three-and-a-half hours of golf was possible on a bitterly cold and breezy morning before driving rain, sleet and then snow led to matches being suspended at the elite World Golf Championships (WGC) event.
Ice formed on the greens and, with further snow showers forecast for the rest of the day in Arizona's high desert, officials had no option but to call off play for the day after waiting a couple of hours to re-evaluate conditions.
Almost two inches of snow covered the entire course, the driving range and the practice putting green at Dove Mountain's Ritz-Carlton Golf Club after 23 of the 32 matches had started with none finishing.
"Once we got two inches of snow, even if it melted in the next hour or so, it would still take another hour-and-a-half ... to let the golf course drain where we could play," Mark Russell, the PGA Tour's vice president of rules and competition, said.
"We were just spinning our wheels, so we just decided to pull the plug on it. But I don't think we'll have any problem at all if the weather remains nice, finishing Sunday on time."
Officials later said the first round would resume, weather-permitting, from 8.30am local (10.30 a.m. ET) on Thursday with the second round scheduled to start from around noon.
Ian Poulter, the 2010 champion, was 3up on fellow Briton Stephen Gallacher after 12 holes and was stunned by the sudden change in the weather.
"One minute we're playing golf, albeit it's a little cool, and then within a space of 25 minutes, it turns from playable to cold drizzle to sleet and to snow," Poulter told reporters.
"You're just desperate to get off the golf course to be quite frank. Your hands are actually losing all color. They're pretty much going white as the snow starts to come down.
"And within an hour and a half of all that starting, you've got two inches of snow on the ground. It's just bizarre."
Australian Jason Day was in full command against American Zach Johnson, four birdies in the first eight holes helping him go 6up after 10.
"I've never played golf to the point where we've actually stopped for snow, which is kind of crazy," a smiling Day said. "But that's just how it is. Mother Nature can just do whatever she wants.
"Once it comes to tomorrow, I kind of have to get back into that game mode ... I do have that lead, but I want to make sure that I try and get in the house."
American Bo Van Pelt was 5up on Australian John Senden after 12 holes, defending champion Hunter Mahan was 4up on Italy's Matteo Manassero after nine and American Matt Kuchar was 3up on Japan's Hiroyuki Fujita after 14.
Northern Ireland's world number one Rory McIlroy, beaten by Mahan 2&1 in last year's final, and three-times champion Tiger Woods were among those yet to start their first-round matches.
McIlroy has been drawn to play Irishman Shane Lowry in the opening round while Woods will face fellow American Charles Howell III.
"I have never seen anything like that at a golf tournament," said twice major champion McIlroy. "I've seen snow on the course when I was a kid, but nothing like that on any of the tours. It was crazy."
It was the second time in three years that wintry weather had forced a delay in play at Dove Mountain.
Almost an inch of snow covered the course before thawing out for the start of the 2011 final between Britain's Luke Donald and Germany's Martin Kaymer, which was later interrupted by sleet. Donald went on to win that final 3&2.
It is the third PGA Tour event this year to be severely affected by adverse weather.
The season-opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii was cut to three rounds and spilled over into a rare Tuesday finish because of relentless howling winds, while an entire day was wiped out by fog at last month's Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Steve Keating)