Elder, Nicklaus & Player to tee-off wide open Masters

John Craven

A scenic morning view of the No. 10 hole at Augusta National

John Craven

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The pre-tournament talk is at an end, the azaleas are back in bloom, patrons are primed with pimento cheese sandwiches and April has restored Augusta National’s fire. Who’s ready for some golf?

This year, Lee Elder joins Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player as an honorary starter at the 85th edition of a wide open Masters, where everyone seems to have a different idea of the winner.

In 1975, Elder became the first Black man to play in the Masters and on the 45th anniversary of his ground-breaking appearance, Elder was invited to join Nicklaus and Player at the traditional curtain raiser to the first men’s Major of the year.

“The opportunity to earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream and to have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life,” Elder said. “So to be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary for next year’s Masters means the world to me.”

Augusta National Chairman, Fred Ridley will in turn have the honour of announcing Elder on the first tee at 12.45pm Irish time in a new three-ball of Augusta starters after the passing of golf’s ‘King’, Arnold Palmer in 2016.

“As we prepare for the opening round tomorrow morning, we look forward to the historic occasion that we announced in November. Lee Elder, the first Black man to compete in the Masters, will join our great champions Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus for tomorrow’s Honorary start to the Tournament,” said Ridley on Wednesday.

“This week marks 60 years since Gary became the first international Masters Champion. It also is the 35th anniversary of Jack’s record sixth green jacket. And tomorrow morning we also will reflect on the moment at Augusta National in 1975 when Lee Elder bravely broke barriers as his name was announced on the first tee. And I cannot wait to have the honour of introducing Lee and celebrating his inspiring legacy with our patrons and viewers worldwide.”

When play gets underway for the tournament proper, it’s hard to remember a more open Masters tournament. Atop the betting, you’re splitting hairs with defending champion Dustin Johnson holding slender favouritsm over US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, 2015 Masters champion and last week’s Valero Texas Open winner Jordan Spieth and this year’s Players champion Justin Thomas.

New father, Jon Rahm will hope the ‘nappy’ factor’ plays a part in the Spaniard finally getting his hands on a Major title at a course where he’s enjoyed three top-10s from four starts. Rory McIlroy will also be hopeful that a change in direction sparked by Pete Cowen could unlock the door to his Grand Slam dreams and golfing immortality. And that’s before you consider the likes of Koepka, Cantlay, Schauffele, Morikawa and Hovland to name but a few.

Ireland has sent fifteen players up Magnolia Lane through the years but none have managed to take that leap into the Butler Cabin and don green. What then, of reigning Open Champion Shane Lowry’s chances? All but ruled out by the bookmakers, the Clara star will take no notice of his price and cut a confident figure pre-tournament, finding the funny side of just how well his game is trending ahead of the Augusta showpiece.

And make no mistake, this is a showpiece, it’s box office golf; the one time this year that isolating at home is a privilege and not a curse.

They billed November’s renewal as ‘a Masters like no other’, and they were right. It missed the mark of a true Masters test. The green jacket brigade will want their revenge on Dustin Johnson’s 20-under par winning total this week. The weather over Easter has been pristine. The course is firm and fast and fiery, and early indications suggest the winning score will be closer to five-under than 10.

Of course, you have the game’s best players sharpening their blades in defiance of any mean set-up but attack might not be the best form of defence if Augusta is showing its teeth. If it’s to play like a traditional test, then perhaps players should take note of the advice of six-time Masters winner Jack Nicklaus this week:

“My best advice would be to put the ball in the middle of the green on every hole and find out what type of breaking putt you have after that. There’s only four pin placements – you’re not going to be very far away.” 

The modern player often struggles to resist the lure of yellow flags flapping in the breeze. That could be bad news for the aggressor, but great television for us, the armchair pundits. So, strap yourselves in folks for four days of golfing bliss. They don’t call this place the ‘Cathedral in the Pines’ for nothing. This is heaven on Earth, at least for us golfers. Count your blessings and may the best golf win.

Irish tee times – Irish time

  • 3.42pm – Rory McIlroy
  • 5.48pm – Shane Lowry
  • Full scoring HERE

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