A day at the Masters

AUGUSTA — The 2012 Masters officially got under way Thursday when Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus hit ceremonial tee shots for the first time as a group.

All three shots were down the center of the first fairway. Palmer, 82, hit first and was so delighted with his shot that he gave a high handshake to Augusta National chairman Billy Payne. Player, 76, hit next in his first shot as an honorary starter and Nicklaus, 72, followed.

When asked if they noticed whose tee shot went farthest, Nicklaus quipped “I don’t think any of us can see that far.”

Player said his first appearance as an honorary starter was “a great thrill.” Palmer called the reunion “appropriate.”

“We’ve played golf all our lives together,” Palmer said.

Time may be catching up to the three players, who have won 13 green jackets between them in competing in a combined 147 Masters.

“We’d all like to still play,” Nicklaus said. “But when you look at our drives, we all had 3-wood and a little more left [to the green], and you know why we aren’t.”

Payne introduced the golf legends and called the ceremony part of a “historic day” at Augusta National.

Fans lined the first tee box and fairway to watch the event, also well-documented by television and still cameras. One of the spectators was Phil Mickelson — green jacket and all — who came out to greet the three and watch.

Craig Heatley, the chairman of the Masters media committee said, closed a post-event news conference by saying: “Gentlemen, words can’t describe the thanks that we have, the respect that we hold you here. I know that I speak for hundreds and hundreds of millions of people around the world whose lives you have positively influences. We love you, we thank you and we appreciate you.”

Fifty Masters and counting

Sarah Yates Sutherland has seen Augusta National Golf Club like few. There is a pullout sofa in a den in Butler Cabin that served as her sleeping quarters as a young girl during Masters past.

Sutherland, now 61, is attending her 50th consecutive Masters this week. The daughter of Charlie Yates, a member of Augusta National for more than 60 years and a participant in the first 11 Masters, started coming in 1963. One of her prized possessions in her collection of 50 Masters badges is the 1964 tag signed on the backside by Arnold Palmer. “I was a big Arnie’s Army fan,” Sutherland said.

She has been back every year through childhood, college and her adult life.

“I never missed one through college and I lived in [Washington] D.C. for 20 years,” Sutherland said. “It was a way always to catch up with my parents and spend time with them.”

Sutherland’s brother, Charlie Yates Jr., and cousin, Danny Yates, also are members of Augusta National.

Her favorite tournament member was watching Jack Nicklaus win in 1986.

“But probably the best memories were times spent with my dad because it was special,” said Sutherland, who spent much time on hole No. 2, a favorite of her father.

Sutherland, who is in the business of construction management for non-profit organizations, resides in Atlanta and near Athens.

She will continue to return each April, and you can almost always find her out on the course.

“I’m a walker not a sitter,” Sutherland said.

Watson befriends wounded veteran

Tom Watson had company walking to the ninth green to finish the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday. He was joined by Jay Fain, a veteran who lost his right leg in Baghdad in 2007.

Watson arranged for Fain, a 27-year-old from Columbia, to attend the Masters this week. He pulled him from the crowd for the final walk to much applause.

Watson and Fain struck up a friendship while attending David Feherty’s IED of Pheasant Hunting event for wounded veterans last year.

“I’ve grown up watching and playing golf my whole life,” Fain said. “Meeting these guys, you get a little star struck. It’s cool knowing them on a personal level. They are just people like anyone.”

Fain expressed an interest in attending the Masters, and the two-time winner was able to help.

“He wanted to come to the Masters, and we can make that happen,” Watson said.

Amateur has fun among golf’s greats

The Cinderfella story of the 76th Masters is Randal Lewis, who qualified by becoming the oldest U.S. Mid-Amateur champion in history at age 54.

Lewis, a financial adviser from Michigan, has rubbed elbows with the greats of the game. Just a few include Jack Nicklaus whom he met at Augusta several weeks ago and with whom he played in a pairing with Jose Maria Olazabal on Thursday.

Lewis shot an opening-round 9-over-par 77, but was still all smiles afterward.

“It was fun,” Lewis said. “I was disappointed I didn’t drive the ball better. I felt pretty comfortable out there. I was so nervous at the par-3 [contest Wednesday]. I was a little nervous on the first tee, but once I hit the first tee shot I settled in. I just didn’t hit enough quality drives to get in position to approach the greens.”

Despite a round with five bogeys and two double-bogeys, Lewis said it could have been worse had he not putted well.

“It’s hard to complain about a sunny day at Augusta,” Lewis said.