By PAUL NEWBERRY, AP National Writer
Eighty-three-year-old Arnold Palmer punched the air on an overcast morning.
The Masters was under way.
Three of golf’s greatest players — Palmer, 77-year-old Gary Player and 73-year-old Jack Nicklaus — struck ceremonial tee shots to begin the first major of the year Thursday.
Palmer was clearly pleased with his effort, which settled right in the middle of the fairway. He pumped his right fist as the crowd roared.
“The only nerves are to make sure you make contact,” Nicklaus quipped. “It doesn’t make a diddly-darn where it goes.”
Sandy Lyle, John Peterson and amateur Nathan Smith followed the former champions to the tee, beginning their rounds under gray skies after three warm, sunny days of practice. There was a chance of rain in the afternoon.
Lyle and Smith both left No. 1 with bogeys. The very early leader was Sweden’s Carl Pettersson, with birdies on his first two holes.
Four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods came into the week as the overwhelming favorite. He already has three wins this year and reclaimed the No. 1 spot in the world rankings.
“I feel comfortable with every aspect of my game,” Woods said. “I feel that I’ve improved and I’ve gotten more consistent, and I think the wins show that.”
But Woods hasn’t won a major since 2008, and he has gone eight long years since his last win at Augusta. He was scheduled to tee off at 10:45 a.m. with Luke Donald and Scott Piercy.
“Obviously, Tiger is Tiger,” Piercy said. “He’s always going to be that target. He knows it, and that’s how he wants it. But there’s a lot of people getting closer. And the golfing gods, or whatever you want to call them, have a lot to do with winning. A bounce here, a bounce there. A lip in, a lip out.”
Angel Cabrera got one of those bounces off a pine tree and back into the 18th fairway in 2009 that helped him save par and win a playoff on the next hole. Sure, he was a former U.S. Open champion, but the big Argentine was No. 69 in the world that year, the lowest-ranked player to win the Masters.
The hole got in the way twice for Charl Schwartzel in 2011, once on a chip across the first green that fell for birdie, another a shot from the third fairway that dropped for eagle. He finished with four straight birdies to win.
Zach Johnson was just a normal guy from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, who would not seem to fit the profile of a Masters champion. He wasn’t very long, didn’t hit the ball very high and didn’t go for the green in two on any of the par 5s. He won by two shots in 2007.
“The favorite is all media-driven, all public-driven,” Johnson said. “There are no surprises out there. There’s probably 70 or 80 guys that you would not be surprised one bit if any of them won.”
Three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo didn’t name them all, but his list kept growing when he talked about 20 players who could win the Masters, all from what he referred to as the second tier and described as “pretty darn good.”
Justin Rose, Ian Poulter and Luke Donald. Brandt Snedeker and Bill Haas. Louis Oosthuizen and Schwartzel.
Not to mention three-time winner Phil Mickelson, defending champ Bubba Watson and former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy.
“Yes, Tiger is the favorite,” Faldo said. “He’s strong. He’s determined. We will see. But he’s going to be chased by a lot of really good players.”
Augusta National chairman Billy Payne held his annual “State of the Masters” news conference on Wednesday, where of course the subject turned to the club’s first female members, former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore.
“I hope the experience for Condi and Darla, as members of our club, has been every bit as enjoyable for them over the last eight months as it has been for their fellow members,” Payne said. “It’s just awesome.”
While Augusta National had long resisted female members, with a former chairman famously declaring the club wouldn’t change its all-male membership “at the point of a bayonet,” Payne said his membership was now eager to lead the sport into a new era.
“What we’ve done is do what we’re supposed do,” he said, “and that is to be a beacon in the world of golf and do our best to influence others to want to be a part of it.”
While claiming to look forward, Augusta National is about tradition more than anything.
That was never more apparent than during the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday, a chance for the sport to embrace its past and give the players an opportunity to unwind before the shots that really count.
Everyone from moms to small children — some barely old enough to walk — took on caddying duties. The greats of the game, long past their prime, thrilled the patrons with a few more swings. Technically, they kept score, but everyone knew it was all for fun. No need to get worked up about these nine holes. That’s for Thursday, after everyone moves over to “the big course.”
“It’s a good way to unwind before the stress of the tournament starts,” Brandt Snedeker said. “This is a great way to relax and spend time with your family.”
This picturesque spot — nine exquisite little holes tucked into the northeast edge of Augusta National — provides another of those quirky trademarks that sets the first major apart from the next three.
Where else can you see a threesome that includes Nicklaus, Palmer and Player? Where else can you see former top-ranked tennis player Caroline Wozniacki on the bag for her boyfriend, McIlroy? Where else can you find 91-year-old Jack Fleck, who won the 1955 U.S. Open in one of golf’s greatest upsets, taking a few whacks?
“It’s fun down here,” Fred Couples said. “It’s a good little spot.”
Especially when Nicklaus, Palmer and Player — with 13 green jackets and 34 major championships among them — stroll around the “little course” for an hour or so, providing a running commentary on the deteriorating state of their once-mighty games.
After Palmer sliced one into the water, he joked, “That was my last ball.”
“I can loan you one,” Nicklaus quipped, as he hunched over to tee up his ball.
“Is my credit good?” Palmer asked.
“Good with me,” Nicklaus said.
No one has ever won the Par 3 Contest and gone on to win the Masters, which doesn’t bode well for Ted Potter Jr. He beat Mickelson and Matt Kuchar in a three-way, two-hole playoff after they tied at 4-under 23. Ernie Els and Nick Watney also shot 23, but they had already left the club and didn’t take part in the playoff.
Follow Paul Newberry at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963