‘Big three’ get Masters underway

The trio formerly known as golf’s ‘Big Three’ – they have 13 Masters titles between them – continued their role as honorary starters by each hitting a tee shot on the par-four first hole.

And it was 79-year-old fitness fanatic Player who produced the longest drive by around 10 yards from 75-year-old Nicklaus, who recorded his first ever hole-in-one at Augusta National during Wednesday’s par-three contest.

Both men split the fairway on a hole ranked the third hardest on the course last year, but 85-year-old Palmer – who has been struggling with a shoulder injury which kept him out of the par-three contest – hooked his shot a short distance towards the ninth fairway.

With that the trio retired to the clubhouse and allowed the tournament proper to begin, with conditions perfect for the early starters.

The first birdie came from the player to hit the opening tee shot, American Charley Hoffman picking up a birdie on the second that was soon matched in the group behind by England’s Danny Willett, who pitched to four feet on the par five.

That took Masters debutant Willett back to level par following a bogey on the first, when his approach from a fairway bunker span back off the front of the undulating green.

Hoffman also birdied the short third and, after dropping a shot on the tough par-three fourth, holed a long putt across the fifth green to move to two under and share the early lead with compatriot Gary Woodland, who had birdied the second and fourth.

Former champions Vijay Singh and Jose Maria Olazabal were one under after both birdied the first, Olazabal being the last European winner after claiming his second green jacket in 1999.

Hoffman remained two under at the turn and although Woodland had bogeyed the fifth to drop out of the lead, Hoffman soon had company in the shape of England’s Ian Poulter.

Poulter, whose preparations for his 11th Masters appearance revolved around a week’s holiday in the Bahamas, had birdied the second and third, while Scotland’s Stephen Gallacher had recovered from a bogey on the first – where his drive hit a female spectator – with birdies on the third and fourth.

Willett was also one under thanks to a birdie on the par-five eighth, as was American Kevin Streelman, who defeated Camilo Villegas on the third hole of a play-off to win the par-three contest on Wednesday. Since the event started in 1960, no par-three champion has gone on to win the Masters in the same week.