AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Two old champions with 10 green jackets between them strolled up to the first tee to get the Masters going, then stepped aside to let the real contenders take their place in the Georgia sun.
Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer struck ceremonial tee shots shortly after sunrise Thursday at Augusta National, 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.
Jonathan Byrd, Ross Fisher and Sean O'Hair were the first group actually keeping score, though most eyes are sure to be on two guys who start 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 is NOT the Augusta favorite. Mickelson is the bookies' 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 over 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 in all. 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."
In all, 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 with his slump, 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, someone such as Watson or Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy.
Wednesday provided a final chance to practice and there wasn't a cloud in the sky, the temperature climbing into the low 70s for a fitting prelude to the warm, dry weather expected through the weekend.
While serious work was being done – jotting down yardages, studying all the dips and bends of those tricky greens – there was still plenty of time for frivolity amid the towering pines and dazzling azaleas.
Every golfer who came through the par-3 16th was required to take at least one attempt at skipping one across the pond. The afternoon was reserved for the Par 3 Contest, where fans cheered on the legends group – Nicklaus, Palmer and Gary Player – and chuckled as everyone from caddies to just-learned-to-walk kids tried their hand with the putter.
"We didn't play well," Palmer said, "but we had fun."
Donald won the nine-hole event at 5 under. Not a good sign for the Englishman, since no one has ever followed a Par 3 triumph with a green jacket.
Mickelson played the Par 3 with his young children in tow, then had plenty of time to rest up for the real thing. He was scheduled to tee off in the next-to-last group, playing with Geoff Ogilvy and U.S. Amateur champ Peter Uihlein.
That suited Lefty just fine.
"I like the latest tee time possible," he said. "About 5 o'clock, it just seems to calm down here. It seems like any wind that might be out there just seems to subside. It seems very peaceful. I would love nothing more than to have the last tee time every day."
He'd sure like to be in the last group Sunday.