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Published: Thursday, 4/5/2012

'Big Three' back together at Masters

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The Big Three will be together again Thursday morning as Gary Player serves as an honorary starter at the Masters for the first time.

Player, considered the most prolific international golfer in the game's history, joins Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus as first off the No. 1 tee at 7:40. Between them, they have won 13 championships at Augusta National.

"We have great love for each other and great respect for each other, and now to be teeing off on Thursday morning is a great honor for me because I hold this course in high esteem," said Player, whose last of 52 consecutive Masters appearances took place in 2009.

The South African was the first foreign champion of the tournament, winning in 1961, 1974, and 1978.

The tradition of honorary starters in the Masters began in 1963 with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod.

Player becomes the ninth golfer to serve as an honorary starter, joining Hutchison (1963-73), McLeod (1963-76), Byron Nelson (1981-2001), Gene Sarazen (1981-99), Ken Venturi (1983), Sam Snead (1984-2002), Palmer (2007-present), and Nicklaus (2010-present).

NO ROOKIE: Webb Simpson won twice on the PGA Tour last year to earn his first invitation to the Masters in 2012.

It won't be his first exposure to Augusta National.

He played here at the age of 12. The head pro at Simpson's home course in Raleigh, N.C., was a former Augusta National employee, and he brought Simpson and his father to play a round.

Simpson said he shot 80. His next visit was eight years later and his score was eight strokes better.

STORMY NIGHT: The gates at Augusta National did not open at the scheduled time Wednesday morning, but the delay was minimal considering the damage that was done by an overnight storm.

"We lost several trees around the golf course, none of which will … impact the competition," said club chairman Billy Payne. "Debris was all around, and took hours and hours, and the cleanup remains ongoing. We had some over-run on Rae's Creek. We had 1.4 inches of rain on the course. Several of our bunkers were completely washed out. So it was a significant storm."

One of the trees that fell landed on a restroom building at No. 16 and did considerable damage.

"We hope to have it rebuilt and up and running by the end of the day," Payne said. "It was remarkable work by our staff and volunteers.

"I think we were delayed in opening the course only 30 or 45 minutes."

PAR 3: This doesn't bode well for Padraig Harrington.

Rain and lightning washed out the end of the Par 3 tournament, leaving Harrington and Jonathan Byrd as the de facto champions at 5 under. It's an honor most golfers might rather avoid, considering no Par 3 champion has ever gone on to capture the green jacket.

It's only the second time since the Par 3 began in 1960 that there were dual winners because of suspension. One of those winners in 2003? None other than Harrington, who would miss the cut for the first time at Augusta National two days later. Harrington also won the next year, and went on to tie for 13th.

"I don't even know if five is going to win," Harrington said when he finished Wednesday. "Normally five is good enough, but it could take six today."

It probably would have. Jerry Pate was at 4 under with four holes left when the contest was halted, and Webb Simpson was at 4 under with a hole to go. Adam Scott also finished at 4 under.

At least Harrington, a three-time major winner, got to spend some quality time with his sons at the family-friendly event. Many players have their kids -- or grandkids, in some cases -- caddie for them, and Harrington had 8-year-old Patrick and 4-year-old Ciaran in tow Wednesday.

There were two holes-in-one during the Par 3. Mark Wilson made one on No. 4, and Thomas Bjorn had another on No. 9.

NEW LOOK: Something is missing at the Masters this year.

The scoring shed, a small, green wooden building that stood for years between the ninth and 18th greens, is gone, leaving an unobstructed view of the 18th hole -- as well as more seats for fans eager to stake out a spot for Sunday afternoon. Players will now sign their scorecards in a room on the first floor of the clubhouse. Just like every other improvement at Augusta National, it's almost impossible to tell what was changed. A faint outline of discolored grass is the only hint the scoring shed ever existed.

The Associated Press contributed to this report



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