Masters begins with a ceremonial tee shot; fair weather expected

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Arnold Palmer delivered a ceremonial swing to get the Masters started today, then ceded the tee box to so many compelling storylines.

Among them: Padraig Harrington going for his third straight major title; Greg Norman returning to the scene of so much heartache; Gary Player competing at Augusta for the 52nd — and final — time; three brilliant teens taking a crack at the green jacket; and, of course, Tiger Woods.

The world's No. 1 player had an afternoon tee time in his first major since hobbling to a U.S. Open win last summer, his 14th title in golf's four biggest events. Woods underwent knee surgery after his playoff win at Torrey Pines, missing the British Open and the PGA Championship.

He returned at the end of February after an eight-month layoff, and showed he's fully recovered with a dramatic win at Bay Hill two weeks ago. He's the overwhelming favorite to win a fifth green jacket at Augusta National, which would leave him one away from Jack Nicklaus' record.

Woods has plenty of competition, starting with Harrington and Phil Mickelson. The Irishman won both majors while Woods was away, including a second straight British Open title. Mickelson is a two-time Masters winner who looks as strong as ever, having already won twice this year.

The 79-year-old Palmer got things started on a cool, sunny morning, whacking the ball down the right side of the fairway with his one swing. The temperature was expected to warm into the 70s under clear blue skies, a striking change from foul weather that's plagued the event the last two years.

Ian Woosnam of Wales, the 1991 champion, went out in the first group with Chez Reavie and Briny Baird. England's Ross Fisher was the early leader after shooting a 3-under 33 on the front side. Nick Watney made the turn at 34, while South Africa's Tim Clark, who won Wednesday's Par-3 contest, opened with a 35.

While the Masters prides itself on hosting the most exclusive of the majors — only 96 players qualified this year — there's still room for those who generate whispers of "How did HE get here?" from the patrons.

Just look at Ken Duke, who's No. 112 in the world rankings. He's played golf all over the world trying to make a living. He earned his PGA Tour card one year, then lost it the next. He even gave up the game for a brief time, selling newspapers to make ends meet.

Now, at age 40, he's at the Masters for the first time.

"I feel like I played good enough to get in," Duke said, pointing to the best season of his career, 2008, when he had five top-10 finishes and cracked the top 25 in 13 PGA Tour events.

Duke has never won on the PGA Tour, but he made the top 30 on the 2008 money list. Baird (No. 118), Bubba Watson (129) and Billy Mayfair (131 and having a miserable season) took advantage of a volatile FedEx Cup points system that allowed them to get in last year's Tour Championship, another of Augusta's myriad qualifying standards.

"No ranking is fair," Baird said. "They try to do the best they can to make it fair. But you can't compare the PGA Tour to the European Tour to the Asian Tour to the Japanese Tour. None of it is fair. The BCS isn't fair in football, either."

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said there are no plans to change the qualifying format, though the club constantly tinkers with the system.

"We are always comfortable with what we do until we change what we do," Payne quipped. "I don't know of anything that would lead me to believe that we would make any changes."

Duke and Baird suggested one change: Include anyone who wins the year before on the PGA Tour, even if it's one of those minor tournaments held opposite the majors and World Golf Championship events.

That's the way it used to be. Under the current policy, only those who win full-field tournaments are invited to Augusta. Sorry, Mark Wilson, winner of the Mayakoba Golf Classic. Too bad, Michael Bradley, who took first in the Puerto Rico Open.

"The only thing I would criticize is there are guys who win PGA Tour events and don't get to play here," Baird said. "To me, that's terrible. Anybody who wins a PGA tournament should be in this tournament."

But the exclusive — if somewhat quirky — nature of getting into the Masters is part of its charm. Anyone who wins a green jacket receives a lifetime invitation. Several spots are reserved for amateurs in a perpetual tribute to club co-founder Bobby Jones, who never turned pro.

That why there's a gas station owner in the field, Steve Wilson's reward at age 39 for winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship, while Davis Love III will be watching from home.

That's why someone like Duke, a late bloomer if there ever was one, was teeing off Thursday, knowing he's starting even with all the Woods and Mickelsons of the world.

"It's been a dream of mine to play here since I was a kid," Duke said. "It's really, really unbelievable."

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