'Big 3' get Masters underway
Augusta - The 76th Masters got underway at Augusta National on Thursday with Tiger Woods the tournament favourite and Rory McIlroy leading a strong European challenge.
It was an emotional ceremonial tee-off shortly after the crack of dawn with Gary Player joining old foes Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the Big Three reunited as Honorary Starters to the tournament.
They then stood aside as the first grouping of Craig Stadler, Brendan Steele and Tim Clark walked onto the first tee under perfect playing conditions.
Heavy rain and thunderstorms over the last few days have made the going soft at the famed Georgia layout and taken some of the sting out of the notoriously fast greens, prompting Phil Mickelson to predict "a birdie-fest."
Seen by some as the most open Masters in years and by others as merely the stage for a showdown between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, this year's tournament has been as hotly anticipated as any in the past.
Woods, a winner again last month after a 28-month losing run, was due off in mid-morning with Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez and rising Korean star Bae Sang-Moon.
The fit-again former world No 1 says he is driving the ball much better than before with his iron game improving and that "everything is heading in the right direction at the right time."
A four-time Masters winner, the last time being in 2005, all that Woods has done since he returned to action last October after another round of knee surgery has been geared toward getting himself primed for this week.
A win on Sunday would be his fifth at Augusta National, one shy of the record six set by Nicklaus in 1986, and it would be his 15th major win, three off the record of 18, also held by his boyhood idol Nicklaus.
Others out early in the day included last year's runner-up Adam Scott, world No 1 Luke Donald and defending champion Charl Schwartzel.
McIlroy, who took a four-shot lead into the final round at last year's Masters but collapsed down the back nine to a soul-destroying 80, was in the penultimate grouping alongside Bubba Watson and 2009 champion Angel Cabrera.
After them, and closing out the day, were scheduled three-time former winner Mickelson playing with last week's Houston Open winner Hunter Mahan and Peter Hanson of Sweden.
The forecasts were for showers and thunderstorms later in the day and on Friday morning with much cooler, drier conditions expected for the weekend.