AUGUSTA: The 76th Masters got underway at Augusta National yesterday with Tiger Woods the tournament favourite and Rory McIlroy leading a strong European challenge.
It was an emotional ceremonial tee-off shortly after the crack of dawn with Gary Player joining old foes Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer as the Big Three reunited as Honorary Starters to the tournament.
They then stood aside as the first grouping of Craig Stadler, Brendan Steele and Tim Clark walked onto the first tee under perfect playing conditions.
Clark grabbed the first birdie of the tournament at the par-five second, but gave that back with a bogey at the tough fourth hole.
Heavy rain and thunderstorms over the last few days have made the going soft at the famed Georgia layout and taken some of the sting out of the notoriously fast greens, prompting Phil Mickelson to predict ‘a birdie-fest’.
But with little or no roll on the damp, lush fairways the early going saw few players able to beat par.
Last year’s runner-up Adam Scott saw his tee-shot at the first clatter into one of the towering Georgia pines to the left of the fairway, but he hit a superb second onto the green and two-putted for par.
Seen by some as the most open Masters in years and by others as merely the stage for a showdown between Woods and McIlroy, this year’s tournament has been as hotly anticipated as any in the past given the players’ form.
Woods, a winner again last month after a 28-month losing run, was due off in mid-morning with Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez and rising Korean star Bae Sang-Moon.
The fit-again former world number one says he is driving the ball much better than before with his iron game improving and that ‘everything is heading in the right direction at the right time’.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 6th, 2012.