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Palmer's tee shot opens Masters, revives tradition

4/5/2007 - Golf Arnold Palmer

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Arnold Palmer stepped up to a first teebox
that used to be the practice green Thursday and kicked off the
Masters with a tee shot that looks nothing like what he used to hit
when he ruled the course.

Palmer's shot into the left rough, about 100 yards short of the
bunker that's in play for the big hitters, marked the ceremonial
start to the year's first major.

"That little draw off that first tee kept me out of the sand
trap up there," Palmer joked.

For plenty of other players, that sand trap will be well in play
on the 455-yard first hole.

It was all part of the plan when the powers at Augusta started
super-sizing their course -- first in 1999 and again in 2002 and
2006. They got tired of watching players drive over that trap that
Palmer joked about, to say nothing of all the other holes that were
being overpowered and turned into pitch-and-chip displays.

Unlike some recent slogfests, where rain and muck softened
things up and took away all the roll, dry, sunny and cool
conditions are expected this week. Palmer teed with temperatures in
the 40s.

"It's a hard bullet to swallow when you see the guys hitting
the ball as far as they are and playing the kind of golf they are,
and to know that you're not going to do that anymore. And I've known it for a number of years now."
-- Arnold Palmer

The King at the first hole marked the return of a tradition --
having former champions start the tournament -- that went on hiatus
after Sam Snead's death in 2002.

At first, Palmer was reluctant to take on a ceremonial role when
he called it quits after the 2004 tournament. He hadn't been
competitive in years, but the saddest moment came when he realized
he couldn't even keep it respectable on the expanded course. He hit
driver-driver on No. 18, his last competitive hole at Augusta.

"It's a hard bullet to swallow when you see the guys hitting
the ball as far as they are and playing the kind of golf they are,
and to know that you're not going to do that anymore," Palmer
said. "And I've known it for a number of years now."

A year later, Jack Nicklaus hung it up.

Among the legends, only 71-year-old Gary Player is still playing
-- promising to compete for two full rounds, even though this course
from the championship tees is no longer fit for the seniors.

Soon, it figures, Player might be asked to join Palmer in the
ceremonial role.

The King said he's glad he took it on.

"Seeing what happened when they opened the gates was also quite
a thrill," Palmer said, acknowledging the hundreds of fans who
hurried to catch a glimpse of his tee shot. "Seeing those people
come in, obviously that's what it's been about for me for a long
time."