Augusta - The annual quest for Masters glory has moved into full swing on golf's greatest stage Thursday at Augusta National with favorites Rory McIlroy and Adam Scott going out in back-to-back groupings.
Defending champion Scott, who last year became the first Australian to win the Masters, headed out first in the 16th grouping of the day alongside PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner and 19-year-old British amateur Matthew Fitzpatrick.
Scott is bidding to become just the fourth player to win back-to-back Masters titles after Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods, the last man to achieve that feat in 2002.
In so doing, he would also take the world number one spot away from the Woods, who is absent through injury.
"It's been a process to get there and that's where I'm at, at the moment, and I'm getting close. But it will take four great rounds this week," he said.
Eleven minutes later it was McIlroy's turn as he began his bid to win a third major title after the 2011 US Open and 2012 PGA Championship.
The 24-year-old Irishman had for company 20-year-old Jordan Spieth and 23-year-old Patrick Reed - two rising young US stars on the PGA Tour.
Reed and Spieth are part of a record haul of 24 Masters first-timers who are threatening to turn the game inside out as the generation that spawned such talents as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh starts to fade.
"It feels funny that they are going to be playing their first Masters and I'm playing my sixth," McIlroy said of his playing partners. "I feel like the veteran in the group."
Among the first to show atop the leaderboard was 2012 US Open champion Webb Simpson, who birdied the first three holes, while Jonas Blixt of Sweden reached the turn at three-under with four birdies and a bogey.
Earlier in the morning, the 78th Masters got underway under blue skies at the fabled Georgia layout with living legends Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player hitting the first balls as honorary starters.
Golf's famed "Big Three" immediately stepped aside as the action got underway with the first two birdies of the tournament going to 2009 British Open champion Stewart Cink and 1991 Masters winner Ian Woosnam.
There was also the milestone of Craig and Kevin Stadler becoming the first father-and-son combination to play at the same Masters tournament, albeit in different groupings.
If Palmer, Player and Nicklaus were the joint early focus of attention, another legend of the game was missing as, for the first time since he made his Masters debut as a willowy amateur in 1995, the injured Woods was absent.
The four-time Masters winner and holder of 14 major titles announced on April 1 he would not be competing following surgery to repair a pinched nerve in his back that had been troubling him for months.
It was a huge blow for a tournament he has come to symbolize over the last 17 years since his first win in 1997, but players and fans agree that the Masters will always work its magic no matter what.
Even with a fully fit Woods, the tournament would have been as wide open as it has been for years.
Mickelson, who won the British Open at Muirfield last year for his fifth major, was among those expected to be in the hunt come Sunday at Augusta National, where he has won three times previously.
The 43-year-old left-hander, who was doubtful for a while with a pulled muscle in his side, is in the first day's 32nd and penultimate grouping at 17:48 alongside Els and reigning US Open champion Justin Rose of England.
Also among the favorites in a field of 97 was another Australian in the shape of crowd-pleaser Jason Day, who was third last year and tied for second in 2011.
McIlroy and Rose apart, hopes for a first European Masters winner since Jose Maria Olazabal in 1999 rest mainly with in-form Sergio Garcia of Spain and world number three Henrik Stenson of Sweden.
And then there is a menacing-looking group of recent winners - Bubba Watson, Angel Cabrera, Zach Johnson and Charl Schwartzel - who are all perfectly capable of winning again.