MCCARTHY: Masters offers annual reminder golf is for all ages

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Every year, the Masters reminds us that golf is a sport that can be enjoyed for a lifetime.

The 85th edition of the tournament kicked off Thursday with Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, and Lee Elder on the first tee for ceremonial tee shots. Interested onlookers included current players Phil Mickelson, Bubba Watson, and Cameron Champ.

Elder, 86, the first black man to play in the Masters, was not up to hitting a tee shot on this day but with driver in hand, he rose from a chair when his name was announced first by Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley.

“Lee, it is my privilege to say, you have the honours,” Ridley said

Player, 85, was up next and celebrated his shot with a familiar sidekick before dancing off the tee box. Then it was Nicklaus’ turn, and the 81-year-old shared a laugh with the crowd before hitting his drive with the familiar look of a once great (in his case, once greatest) golfer trying to figure out exactly who this old guy was hitting his golf ball.

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“Gary hit a nice tee shot, and I slopped it out there somewhere,” Nicklaus, 81, said. “But anyway, it’s always a nice experience, and it was great to share that first tee with Lee and Gary.”

The competition then began in earnest and a diabolical Augusta National awaited, reminding us that “enjoyed” can sometimes be a funny word to describe what takes place on a golf course. Long gone were the soft November greens from last year’s fall edition, replaced with firm, fast conditions courtesy of a warm Georgia spring; conditions that chairman Ridley said haven’t been seen at a Masters since 2013.

“The course is perfect as usual,” said the ever-youthful Bernhard Langer, 63. “In April it’s a great time for the tournament to be here. The grass is growing in abundance, and they take great care of every detail.”

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The Masters multigenerational nature doesn’t end with the ceremonial tee shots, as Langer played in a group with 24-year-old Will Zalatoris, one of the sport’s fastest-rising stars. On this day, the youngster got the better of the man nearly four decades his senior, shooting an impressive two-under par 70 compared to Langer’s two-over 74.

“I hit 5-iron on a par-3, he hit 9-iron, so he’s four irons longer than the same hole,” Langer said. “It’s just hard to imagine.”

The sight of Mike Weir, 50, returning to Augusta in his green jacket is long familiar to Canadian golf fans. Now at his 22nd Masters — 18th with a spot in the Champions Locker —  and having success on the Champions Tour, it’s become a tradition for Weir to pass on his knowledge and advice to the next generation of Canadian Masters competitors.

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Weir, Corey Conners, and Mackenzie Hughes played a Tuesday practice round this week, and the main advice from the 2003 green jacket winner was that their time is now.

“I said, you guys are ready, you’ve got the experience now,” Weir said. “You’ve been out on tour long enough. You’ve played enough big tournaments. You’ve got to have that self-belief.”

Conners, 29, was the first Canadian to tee off Thursday and came into the week with high expectations after November’s tie for 10th. After bogeying the first hole, Conners birdied the third, fifth, and ninth holes to share the early lead at two-under.

“I feel like I’m hitting my lines really well,” Conners said. “There’s a lot of tricky putts out here, so that’s definitely important to get the ball started in the right place.”

Conners’ only big mistake came at the famous par-5 13th hole, where he found Rae’s Creek with his second shot and led to double bogey. He finished the day with a one-over-par 73.

“I got a little greedy my second shot and ended up hitting it in the creek, then I compounded the error there and ended up making a double,” Conners said. “It was just a little bit of a mis-hit. I was just trying to stick it to the pin more than I needed to and just didn’t quite catch it solid. I ended up coming up short.”

Hughes, 30, was one better than Conners on Thursday, shooting an even-par 72, with two birdies and two bogeys. All in all, good starts for Conners and Hughes because if the early wave of golfers was supposed to take advantage of cooler morning conditions at Augusta, somebody forgot to tell them.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson began his green jacket defence matching Langer’s two-over 74, as did Bubba Watson and the injured Brooks Koepka.

Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia both shot 76, one better than former world No. 1 Jason Day shot 77. Mike Weir, who hasn’t played a tournament round in a month, shot a 78 to tie the resurgent Lee Westwood.

One thing that was clear on Thursday is that Augusta National was ready for the Masters. And doesn’t care how old you are.

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