Golden Bear opens Masters

2010-04-08 16:25
Jack Nicklaus opens the US Masters. (AFP)

Augusta - Jack Nicklaus got the 74th Masters off to an emotional start on Thursday, but the spotlight was firmly on the man chasing his record of 18 majors - Tiger Woods.

GALLERY: US Masters - Par Contest

The fallen superstar was nowhere to be seen when the first shots were played over Augusta National Golf Club as he had an agonising six hours to wait before making his hotly anticipated return to action.

The 70-year-old Nicklaus, who won the last of his record six Masters in 1986 when he was 46, has not played Augusta National since 2005 and, in a sign of the times, he was asked to join old rival Arnold Palmer as ceremonial starters.

Palmer went first sending his tee shot down the 445-yard, par-four first just after sunrise, followed by Nicklaus, who hit the ball 30 yards beyond him.

They both then stepped aside to set the stage for what was expected to be one of the most compelling days in golf history, centered on the now enigmatic figure of Woods.

His opening tee-shot, when he sets out with fellow American Matt Kuchar and K.J. Choi of South Korea in the penultimate of the 32 groups at 1:42 pm (1742 GMT), will be intensely scrutinised for clues to his mental state.

Woods will be returning to action after a five-month layoff to deal with lurid revelations that emerged in late November that he had been leading a double life of deceit involving adulterous relationships with over a dozen women.

The world's best-known sportsman went to ground and only resurfaced again in February when, in an awkward televised apology before a hand-picked audience of family and friends, he laid bare his soul after admitting he had been unfaithful to wife Elin.

Out of the blue, he announced last month that he would end his self-imposed exile at the Masters, a tournament he holds in the highest esteem having won it four times previously.

That set up a press conference grilling here on Monday at which he vowed to turn his life around, save his marriage and return to the way he was at the start of his stunning career "when I was at peace."

Contrition and atonement apart, Woods also showed flashes of the drive and ambition that still burn within him when asked what his expectations were for the week ahead.

"Nothing has changed - going to go out there and try to win this thing," he shot back.

Whether or not he succeeds in that quest depends not just on himself -- his last win at Augusta was five years ago -- but on the performances of 95 others, including 14 past Masters champions.

Phil Mickelson, struggling for form as he helps his wife battle breast cancer, quiet-man Steve Stricker and young guns Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan are the pick of the Americans after Woods.

But with the majority of the field being foreigners, the chances of a third straight international win were very real.

World top tenners Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Ian Poulter headed a powerful eight-strong English challenge, a back-to-form Ernie Els spearheaded a magnificent seven from South Africa and the last player to win a major, Yang Yong-Eun of South Korea, underlined the Asian threat.

Warm spring sunshine greeted the early starters but a storm front was forecast to sweep through during the afternoon which could pose problems for the late starters, Woods among them.

Read more on:    masters  |  jack nicklaus

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