Palmers Ceremonial Drive Kick Starts Masters

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AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Arnold Palmer stepped up to a first teebox that used to be the practice green Thursday and kicked off the Masters with a tee shot that looks nothing like what he used to hit when he ruled the course.
 
Palmer's shot into the left rough, about 100 yards short of the bunker that's in play for the big hitters, marked the ceremonial start to the year's first major.
 
Arnold Palmer
Arnold Palmer gives the crowd a thumbs up Thursday morning. (WireImage)
'That little draw off that first tee kept me out of the sand trap up there,' Palmer joked.
 
For plenty of other players, that sand trap will be well in play on the 455-yard first hole.
 
It was all part of the plan when the powers at Augusta started super-sizing their course -- first in 1999 and again in 2002 and 2006. They got tired of watching players drive over that trap that Palmer joked about, to say nothing of all the other holes that were being overpowered and turned into pitch-and-chip displays.
 
'They saw Tiger emasculate the golf course, they saw him hitting sand wedge and pitching wedge two times each on 17, and they said they didn't want people doing that anymore,' two-time Masters champion Tom Watson said Wednesday.
 
Woods had an afternoon tee time Thursday and defending champion Phil Mickelson was set to go at 10:56 a.m.
 
They were the two most obvious favorites on a course that used to be a great equalizer -- favoring flat sticks over flat bellies -- but has since become a power player's track.
 
It was Tiger's 12-stroke victory in 1997 that helped bring about changes that have, in many opinions, eliminated all but the biggest hitters from having a real chance on this 7,445-yard course.
 
Woods and Mickelson have won five of the last six Masters, and the shorter hitters have been left to wonder if they're only field-fillers, not true contenders.
 
'Since they lengthened the golf course, the golf course plays to their advantage,' said two-time winner Jose Maria Olazabal. 'The longer the golf course, the better it is for the longer hitters.'
 
On that short list would also be Ernie Els and Vijay Singh. Henrik Stenson is a popular choice this year and Geoff Ogilvy gained credibility with his U.S. Open win.
 
Paul Goydos and Scott Verplank? Probably not gonna happen.
 
'It can be done,' Verplank said. 'But it does put a handful of guys at a much greater advantage, and those guys all hit the ball farther than I do. I was playing a practice round with Davis Love III, and he's launching it 300 yards to the top of the hill on the first hole. I'm just hoping I can see the green.'
 
The only assist the little guys might get is from the weather.
 
Unlike some recent slogfests, where rain and muck softened things up and took away all the roll, dry, sunny and cool conditions are expected this week. Palmer teed with temperatures in the 40s.
 
The King at the first hole marked the return of a tradition -- having former champions start the tournament -- that went on hiatus after Sam Snead's death in 2002.
 
At first, Palmer was reluctant to take on a ceremonial role when he called it quits after the 2004 tournament. He hadn't been competitive in years, but the saddest moment came when he realized he couldn't even keep it respectable on the expanded course. He hit driver-driver on No. 18, his last competitive hole at Augusta.
 
'It's a hard bullet to swallow when you see the guys hitting the ball as far as they are and playing the kind of golf they are, and to know that you're not going to do that anymore,' Palmer said. 'And I've known it for a number of years now.'
 
A year later, Jack Nicklaus hung it up.
 
Among the legends, only 71-year-old Gary Player is still playing -- promising to compete for two full rounds, even though this course from the championship tees is no longer fit for the seniors.
 
Soon, it figures, Player might be asked to join Palmer in the ceremonial role.
 
The King said he's glad he took it on.
 
'Seeing what happened when they opened the gates was also quite a thrill,' Palmer said, acknowledging the hundreds of fans who hurried to catch a glimpse of his tee shot. 'Seeing those people come in, obviously that's what it's been about for me for a long time.'
 
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