AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters began Thursday with three shots right down the middle of the fairway.
Just not terribly far.
Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus hit the ceremonial tee shots with fans already lining both sides of the first fairway on a brisk, sunny morning. Still competitive even after all these years, Nicklaus went last and hit a drive that went about a yard past Player’s shot.
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"But it’s not bad when you think he used to outdrive me by 50," Player quipped.
The "Big Three" combined to win 13 green jackets, including seven in a row at the start of the 1960s.
This Masters is far less predictable. Without Tiger Woods or a dominant figure, it’s seen as the most wide-open Masters in years.
A bunch of brash Augusta rookies are eager to fill Woods’ shoes, and the last two dozen majors have been divvied up among 21 winners.
Early Thursday, Webb Simpson birdied the first three holes and Sweden’s Jonas Blixt also was at 3-under par, shooting 33 on the front side. Stewart Cink, Kevin Stadler, Rickie Fowler and Jimmy Walker were at 1 under.
Ryan Moore, who won the Par 3 contest Wednesday, thinks it might be time to break the curse of that winner never winning the tournament.
"You never know," he said. "Someone has got to break that (Par 3) curse at some point in time, so hopefully it’s me. Who knows? I might go shoot 8 under or something, make a couple of hole-in-ones."
As unlikely as that sounds, pretty much everything else is up for grabs at this Masters. Recovering from back surgery, Woods is sitting out the opening major of the year for the first time since turning pro.
Even as his dominance waned in recent years, he was always the clear-cut favorite coming into Augusta, where he has won four times.
Now, as Moore said, who knows?
Jason Day, Sergio Garcia and former Masters champion Zach Johnson are the only players from the top 10 who have won anywhere in the world this year. Only one of the past seven winners on the PGA Tour was ranked in the top 75.
"I think if you’re outside the top 50 in the world this week, you’ve got a great chance," U.S. Open champion Justin Rose said with a laugh.
Woods is out of golf until the summer, but the show goes on at a tournament that rarely fails to deliver plenty of drama.
"It’s a huge loss," defending Masters champion Adam Scott said. "But, as every year here, this event produces something special no matter what. It just has a way of doing it. It’s not going to involve Tiger this year, but it will involve someone else and it will be a memorable event anyway."
It could be Scott, trying to take over as the world’s No. 1 player and join Woods, Nicklaus and Nick Faldo as the only back-to-back winners.
Or it could be Phil Mickelson, who last year won the British Open at age 42 and now has a chance to join Woods and Palmer with a fourth green jacket.
While Woods last won the Masters in 2005, he had finished out of the top six only once since then.
That’s what made him such a compelling figure at Augusta.
He always seemed to be there.
Rose falls on the side of experience — knowing where to miss, knowing where you can’t afford to miss, where the hole locations tend to be on the contoured greens and using the slope to get the ball close.
"Always you can have the unknowns," Rose said. "But I would say 15 guys are pretty strong favorites."
Fuzzy Zoeller was the last Augusta rookie to claim the green jacket in 1979, and the only other ones to do it were the first two: Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen.
Then again, there are 24 first-timers in the 98-player field, a record (except for the first tournament), and none of them will concede an insurmountable learning curve.
Besides, no one is dominating golf at the moment. Walker has the most PGA Tour wins (three) this season, but this is his first Masters. Scott had a chance to go to No. 1 three weeks ago at Bay Hill, but he lost a three-shot lead in the final round to Matt Every, who had never won in his career.
"Doesn’t matter if you’ve played here once or if you’ve played here 50 times," said Patrick Reed, who has won three times in the past eight months. "When it comes down to it, it’s just going to be that whoever is playing the best is going to walk away with the trophy."