Golf

Nicklaus, Player, Palmer get Masters started

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP)

It's wrong to call Charl Schwartzel an accidental champion. Can't do that to a player who makes four straight birdies to close out a Masters victory.

But anyone who remembers that magical Sunday at Augusta last year remembers so much more than the winner.

There was Rory McIlroy's meltdown, Tiger Woods' late charge, a leaderboard with eight different players on top during the back nine and a barrage of birdies that sent roar after roar echoing through those famous Georgia pines.

''When that putt disappeared on 18, honestly the last thing that went through my mind is that I made my fourth straight birdie,'' Schwartzel said. ''It was, `I just won the green jacket.''

The year's first major got underway under calm skies Thursday morning, with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer all hitting their ceremonial first tee shots in the fairway. Three-time champion Phil Mickelson, who had the day's final tee time, was on hand in his green jacket to watch the legends hit their perfect shots.

''I feel it was remarkable,'' Player said of Mickelson's appearance.

Woods had a 10:35 a.m. tee time and McIlroy was set to start at 1:42 p.m.

Schwartzel, meanwhile, was scheduled to begin his defense at 10:24 a.m.

But forgive fans if they aren't swarming the South African when he tees it up, trying to become the first back-to-back winner at Augusta National since Woods in 2001-02. As was the case during last year's carnival-like final round, the golf world has an awful lot going on.

The free-for-all begins with Woods, who notched his first PGA Tour win in 30 months two weeks ago in Orlando, and is suddenly re-established as the favorite to win his fifth green jacket.

Tiger Woods

MASTERS PICK IS . . .

The staff of Golfweek has done due diligence and narrowed the field of potential Masters winners to such usual suspects as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy. But some faves might just surprise you.

It includes McIlroy, who won the Honda Classic in March, but is better remembered for the resilience he showed last year by winning the U.S. Open by eight shots, two months after blowing the four-stroke lead he took into the last day of the Masters.

Phil Mickelson, world No. 1 Luke Donald, Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan have all had wins early in the 2012 season.

Schwartzel, meanwhile, has moved into the top 10 based largely on his Masters victory. He started the year with a pair of top-5 finishes, but has missed the cut in his last two events.

''There's a lot of talk now,'' he said. ''Tiger has obviously won again and he's really playing very good. Rory is playing well. Phil is playing well. Luke. All of the guys. But to me, I go about my business as I normally do, and I feel, and I know, if I play my best, I can compete with anyone.''

While Schwartzel tries to bring the third Masters title back to South Africa in five years, his countryman Ernie Els won't get that chance. Els' 18-year string of Masters appearances ended this year when he failed to qualify by the tournament's normal criteria and officials decided against extending him a special invitation.

''We expect him to be back with us shortly and often,'' Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said. ''But after evaluating all of the circumstances, we chose obviously not to extend an invitation, but look forward to seeing him soon.''

South Africa's most renowned golfer, 76-year-old Player, was reunited with the 72-year-old Nicklaus and Palmer, who is 82, on the first tee box Thursday morning, as the Big Three hit the ceremonial first shots then sit back and watch the fireworks.

There's been plenty of that already at Augusta, thanks to Mother Nature.

A powerful storm hit early Wednesday, dropping 1.4 inches of rain and sending a tree crashing through a restroom near the 16th hole. More thunder and lightning came later in the day, shortening the Par 3 contest and chasing the few remaining players practicing on the big-boy course home early.

Everyone at Augusta needs as much practice as they can get. Even before they made subtle changes by rebuilding the greens on Nos. 8 and 16, the Masters was best known for producing the toughest putting test in golf. Though the greens figure to be soft because of the rain, competition committee chairman Fred Ridley promised pin positions would be adjusted accordingly.

''Admittedly we won't have the firmness, but we think that we have looked at a setup that takes all of that into consideration, as we always do with weather considerations,'' he said.

Still, given the way the world's best are playing this year, along with the conditions, Mickelson is expecting low scores.

''The greens are soft,'' the three-time champion said. ''I don't want to say they are slow, but it's just not the same Augusta. It's wet around the greens, and there's no fear of the course. You've got to attack it this week.''

Schwartzel certainly knows that drill.

In one of the most exciting finishes at a tournament renowned for them, he started his streak by getting up and down on the par-5 15th for birdie to briefly tie for the lead. Moments later, Adam Scott made birdie to go ahead again and Schwartzel responded with a 15-footer on 16.

He took the lead for himself for the first time with a 10-foot birdie putt on No. 17, then closed it out with another birdie to pad his margin to two shots. His 6-under 66 was the best closing round by a winner in 22 years.

It's life-changing stuff, winning the Masters.

''I was just over the moon putting on the green jacket,'' Schwartzel said.

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Tagged: Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus

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