Masters starts at Augusta

2011-04-07 14:06
Arnold Palmer (AP)
Augusta - The 75th edition of the Masters got underway on Thursday with Phil Mickelson set on defending his title for the United States in the face of a multi-pronged assault from Europe.

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The 40-year-old left-hander from California is the new US flag-bearer folowing his win at Houston last week - his first since last year's Masters - which hoisted him to third in the world rankings.

That moved him ahead of long-time figurehead Tiger Woods for the first time in 14 years - since the latter took the golf world by storm by winning the 1997 Masters by a record 12 strokes.

Since then, both men have won the Masters three times, but it is Mickelson who has become the dominant figure with his three victories all coming in the last seven years.

Mickelson is fighting arthritis in his joints and chronic back pain, while Woods, five years his junior, is remodelling his swing, after a crippling knee injury, and his personal life, after a messy divorce.

Woods, tied for fourth here last year, says he is ready to grind it out over the first 63 holes to make sure he is once again in contention come Sunday's back nine.
"I just want to be part of that action and let the chips fall where they may," he said.

"That's how you win those tournaments is you just need to be there."

For the 14-times major winner, the ultimate goal remains Jack Nicklaus' benchmark of 18 majors, the last one of those coming here in 1986.

He has not won at Augusta National though since 2005 and his last major win came at the 2008 US Open.

Mickelson wants to close in on another Nicklaus standard - his record six wins in the Masters - while knowing that a win would give him the world number one spot for the first time.

Five other players could finish up the week as the world's top player in a further demonstration of how congested it has become at the top of the golfing tree.

Woods is one of those, but the four others all come from Europe - No. 1 ranked Martin Kaymer of Germany, No. 2 Lee Westwood of England, No. 4 Luke Donald of England and No 5 Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland.

Westwood was runner-up to Mickelson last year, while Kaymer, Donald and McDowell all missed the cut.

"It's nice to be back and it can only get better," said 26-year-old Kaymer. "If you miss the cut three times, then I think it cannot get really worse."

Following the ceremonial tee-off conducted by Masters legends Nicklaus (71 years old) and Arnold Palmer (81), Americans Jonathan Byrd and Sean O'Hair, alongside English Ryder Cupper Ross Fisher, were first to negotiate the par-four opening hole.

Playing conditions were set to be perfect with warm and sunny weather forecast throughout the day for the 99-strong field, the largest in 45 years.

Woods was due out at 17:41 along with US Open champion McDowell and Robert Allenby of Australia.

Kaymer and Westwood were playing together with Matt Kuchar of the United States at 17:19, while Mickelson had a late start in the penultimate grouping at 20:48 teamed up with Geoff Ogilvy of Australia and US amateur Peter Uihlein.

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