AUGUSTA, Ga. — Two old champions with 10 green jackets between them strolled up to the first tee to kick off the Masters, then stepped aside to let the real contenders take their place Thursday at Augusta National.
Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer struck ceremonial tee shots shortly after sunrise, the traditional start to the year’s first major.
With the overnight chill still lingering, the 81-year-old Palmer hit a little fade that stayed in the fairway. The 71-year-old Nicklaus went next, ripping one right down the middle about 30 yards past his longtime rival.
“I guess it’s still kind of fun to lop it off the first tee and be part of a great event,” Nicklaus said. “People enjoy it. It’s Augusta’s way of honoring its past champions and people such as Arnold and myself. It’s really quite nice they allow us to do this.”
Jonathan Byrd, Ross Fisher and Sean O’Hair were the first group actually keeping score. Fisher was the early leader, closing the front side with two straight birdies for a 3-under 33. The Englishman added another birdie at the 11th to get to 4 under.
Retief Goosen of South Africa also was at 4 under after only four holes. The two-time U.S. Open winner holed out at No. 1 for an eagle, then added birdies at Nos. 3 and 4.
But most eyes figured to be on two guys who started later — defending champ Phil Mickelson and struggling Tiger Woods. Together, they’ve combined to win seven green jackets, including six of the last 10. That might be about their only similarity at the moment.
Mickelson is coming off a three-stroke win at Houston, his first triumph since last year’s Masters and a sign that his game is peaking at just the right time.
“I was able to kind of see the shot a little bit better and hold that picture in my mind throughout the swing and pull it off,” he said.
Woods, on the other hand, hasn’t won since a sex scandal ended his marriage and tarnished his image. He’s in the midst of another complex swing change, still searching for the dominance that used to make him an automatic favorite at every event he entered.
For the first time since 1999, Woods isn’t the Augusta favorite. Mickelson is the bookmakers’ choice at 13-2, while his longtime rival is the second pick at 10-1.
“It doesn’t matter,” said Woods, mired in the longest winless streak of his career — 20 events during the past 17 months. “You still have to play the golf tournament, right? We all have an opportunity. Everyone has the same opportunity as I do.”
Indeed, this is far from a two-man show.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer is the world’s top-ranked player. Though he’s yet to make it to the weekend at Augusta, missing the cut in all three of his previous appearances, he comes in this time as the last guy to win a major.
“The biggest part from the PGA is the confidence that you get,” said Kaymer, who beat Bubba Watson in a playoff at Whistling Straits. “If you become one of the best players in the world, if you win tournaments like that, that gives you the motivation and the self-belief that you can win any tournament.”
Lee Westwood is a former No. 1 in the second spot behind Kaymer. The Englishman is regarded as the best player never to win a major, an unwanted distinction he’d sure like to erase from his record.
That’s what they used to say about Mickelson, who now has four major titles. He reminded Westwood of that in the scoring cabin after beating him by three strokes a year ago.
“Just keep doing what you’re doing,” Mickelson told Westwood, “and it will happen for you sooner or later.”
Six of the top seven players have a shot at leaving Augusta in the No. 1 spot if they win, including third-ranked Mickelson, who squandered a dozen chances last year to take it. The next two — No. 4 Luke Donald and fifth-ranked Graeme McDowell — also are in the running.
Even Woods, who has slipped all the way to seventh, isn’t out of the chase for No. 1. He’s got a slim shot to reclaim it, while sixth-ranked Paul Casey doesn’t because Woods has played fewer tournaments.
Or this could be the place where a talented young player breaks through to win his first major — perhaps Watson, Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy.
Mickelson was scheduled to tee off in the next-to-last group, playing with Geoff Ogilvy and U.S. Amateur champ Peter Uihlein.