AUGUSTA, Ga. — Last year, Adam Scott barely lost the Masters on Sunday. This year, he's working hard not to lose it on Thursday.
The Aussie, still in search of his first major title, made an all-world par on the par-5 second hole to stay at the even mark early on a dewy morning at Augusta National.
But he followed with two quick bogeys to go to 2 over — already four shots behind three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, who made eagle on No. 2 to quickly reach 2-under par.
Scott's par on the very reachable second hold might have felt like something better. He hit his tee shot into a creek, well left of the fairway, then after taking a drop, clanked his next shot off a tree. But it landed in the walkway about 100 yards from the hole and Scott pitched to near tap-in range. A par, and another reason to be thankful they only ask for numbers, not pictures, on that scorecard.
On the first hole, his approach to the green landed short and when he arrived, he saw a ball dirtied by a glob of mud — a sure sign that even though the greens might be receptive, the course was certainly playing longer after two days of rain.
More thunderstorms were predicted for Thursday afternoon, with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Luke Donald and defending champion Charl Schwatzel among those still waiting to tee off.
The only player with more than one birdie on his scorecard in the early going was 53-year-old Larry Mize, in the field on the 25th anniversary of his Masters victory. He had birdies on No. 2 and on both par-3s on the front side. He also had three bogeys and headed to the seventh tee at even and still looking for his first par.
Harrington, co-winner of Wednesday's par-3 contest, was one shot ahead of Ben Crenshaw, Stewart Cink, Aaron Baddeley and Martin Kaymer, who made two birdies after finishing with bogey on the first hole when his third shot — a chip from the side of the green — landed short and rolled back off the putting surface.
The proceedings got under way with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Arnold Palmer all hitting their ceremonial first tee shots in the fairway. Mickelson, who had the day's final tee time, was on hand in his green jacket to watch the legends hit their perfect shots.
"I don't think any of us can see that far," Nicklaus said. "We can hear them all land, though."
Scott was one of the eight players on the top of the leaderboard last year on the back nine of the final round. He had a chance coming down the stretch, but Schwartzel made four straight birdies to close it out and pull away.
"Maybe as a player I learned a few things," Scott said in an interview earlier this week. "I think it was the first time late on a Sunday that I had a chance. I walked to the 17th tee with a one shot lead and parred the last two holes, which I thought was pretty good on those holes. And normally, that is pretty good."
Schwartzel was better. And yet, with so many of the top players playing well as they approached the season's first major, the South African was hardly the headliner as he began his defense.
He's trying to become the first player to repeat as Masters champion since Woods in 2001-02.
"There's a lot of talk now," Schwartzel said. "Tiger has obviously won again and he's really playing very good. Rory is playing well. Phil is playing well. Luke. All of the guys. But to me, I go about my business as I normally do, and I feel, and I know, if I play my best, I can compete with anyone."
Woods had a 10:35 a.m. tee time and McIlroy was set to start at 1:42 p.m.
As was the case during last year's carnival-like final round, the golf world has an awful lot going on.
The free-for-all begins with Woods, who notched his first PGA Tour win in 30 months two weeks ago in Orlando, and is suddenly re-established as the favorite to win his fifth green jacket.
It includes McIlroy, who won the Honda Classic in March, but is better remembered for the resilience he showed last year by winning the U.S. Open by eight shots, two months after blowing the four-stroke lead he took into the last day of the Masters.
Mickelson, world No. 1 Luke Donald, Steve Stricker and Hunter Mahan have all had wins early in the 2012 season.
Schwartzel, meanwhile, has moved into the top 10 based largely on his Masters victory. He started the year with a pair of top-5 finishes, but has missed the cut in his last two events.
"There's a lot of talk now," he said. "Tiger has obviously won again and he's really playing very good. Rory is playing well. Phil is playing well. Luke. All of the guys. But to me, I go about my business as I normally do, and I feel, and I know, if I play my best, I can compete with anyone."
While Schwartzel tries to bring the third Masters title back to South Africa in five years, his countryman Ernie Els won't get that chance. Els' 18-year string of Masters appearances ended this year when he failed to qualify by the tournament's normal criteria and officials decided against extending him a special invitation.
"We expect him to be back with us shortly and often," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said. "But after evaluating all of the circumstances, we chose obviously not to extend an invitation, but look forward to seeing him soon."
South Africa's most renowned golfer, 76-year-old Player, was reunited with the 72-year-old Nicklaus and Palmer, who is 82, on the first tee box Thursday morning, as the Big Three hit the ceremonial first shots then sit back and watch the fireworks.
There's been plenty of that already at Augusta, thanks to Mother Nature.
A powerful storm hit early Wednesday, dropping 1.4 inches of rain and sending a tree crashing through a restroom near the 16th hole. More thunder and lightning came later in the day, shortening the Par 3 contest and chasing the few remaining players practicing on the big-boy course home early.
Everyone at Augusta needs as much practice as they can get. Even before they made subtle changes by rebuilding the greens on Nos. 8 and 16, the Masters was best known for producing the toughest putting test in golf. Though the greens figure to be soft because of the rain, competition committee chairman Fred Ridley promised pin positions would be adjusted accordingly.
"Admittedly we won't have the firmness, but we think that we have looked at a setup that takes all of that into consideration, as we always do with weather considerations," he said.
Still, given the way the world's best are playing this year, along with the conditions, Mickelson is expecting low scores.
"The greens are soft," the three-time champion said. "I don't want to say they are slow, but it's just not the same Augusta. It's wet around the greens, and there's no fear of the course. You've got to attack it this week."