AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) – Eighty-three-year-old Arnold Palmer punched the air on an overcast morning.
The Masters was under way.
Three of golf’s greatest players – Palmer, 77-year-old Gary Player and 73-year-old Jack Nicklaus – struck ceremonial tee shots to begin the first major of the year this morning.
Palmer was clearly pleased with his effort, which settled right in the middle of the fairway. He pumped his right fist as the crowd roared.
“The only nerves are to make sure you make contact,” Nicklaus quipped. “It doesn’t make a diddly-darn where it goes.”
Sandy Lyle, John Peterson and amateur Nathan Smith followed the former champions to the tee, beginning their rounds under gray skies after three warm, sunny days of practice. There was a chance of rain in the afternoon.
Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods came into the week as the overwhelming favorite. He already has three wins this year and reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the world rankings.
“I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,” Woods said. “I feel that I’ve improved and I’ve gotten more consistent, and I think the wins show that.”
But Woods hasn’t won a major since 2008, and he has gone eight long years since his last win at Augusta. He was scheduled to tee off at 10:45 a.m. with Luke Donald and Scott Piercy.
“Obviously, Tiger is Tiger,” Piercy said. “He’s always going to be that target. He knows it, and that’s how he wants it. But there’s a lot of people getting closer. And the golfing gods, or whatever you want to call them, have a lot to do with winning. A bounce here, a bounce there. A lip in, a lip out.”
Angel Cabrera got one of those bounces off a pine tree and back into the 18th fairway in 2009 that helped him save par and win a playoff on the next hole. Sure, he was a former U.S. Open champion, but the big Argentine was No. 69 in the world that year, the lowest-ranked player to win the Masters.
The hole got in the way twice for Charl Schwartzel in 2011, once on a chip across the first green that fell for birdie, another a shot from the third fairway that dropped for eagle. He finished with four straight birdies to win.
Zach Johnson was just a normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who would not seem to fit the profile of a Masters champion. He wasn’t very long, didn’t hit the ball very high and didn’t go for the green in two on any of the par 5s. He won by two shots in 2007.
“The favorite is all media-driven, all public-driven,” Johnson said. “There are no surprises out there. There’s probably 70 or 80 guys that you would not be surprised one bit if any of them won.”
Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo didn’t name them all, but his list kept growing when he talked about 20 players who could win the Masters, all from what he referred to as the second tier and described as “pretty darn good.”
Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald. Brandt Snedeker and Bill Haas. Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel.
Not to mention three-time winner Phil Mickelson, defending champ Bubba Watson and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy.
“Yes, Tiger is the favorite,” Faldo said. “He’s strong. He’s determined. We will see. But he’s going to be chased by a lot of really good players.”