Masters begins with tribute to Palmer

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Honorary starter Jack Nicklaus holds up his hat in honor of Arnold Palmer during the first tee of the 2017 Masters at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, yesterday.

The Masters began yesterday with two ceremonial tee shots and one empty chair.

In a somber tribute to Arnold Palmer, who died in September, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne escorted Palmer's widow to the first tee for the honorary start. Payne also carried Palmer's green jacket and draped it over a chair where Palmer had sat last April. This is the first Masters without the King since 1954.

"The almost unbearable sadness we feel at the passing of Arnold is surpassed only by the love and affection for him that will always reside in our heart," Payne said as thousands crammed around the first tee on a crisp morning full of sunshine and wind. Every fan through the gate received a button that said, "I am a member of Arnie's Army."

Payne asked for a moment of silence so everyone could remember their own experience with Palmer — did anyone in golf have more friends? — and then turned it over to Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player for the ceremonial tee shots.

Player, who jokingly asked for a mulligan at age 81, drilled one down the middle. Nicklaus got him by about 5 yards, though Player was quick to announce it as a tie.

Meanwhile, world No. 1 Dustin Johnson was "cautiously optimistic" of starting the 81st Masters after a back injury, but no final decision has been made.

Johnson, who suffered a back injury in a fall down a flight of stairs in his Augusta rental home, was to make an afternoon arrival and work on his swing at the practice driving range before deciding about playing in the year's first major tournament.

David Winkle, Johnson's agent, said that the player was "cautiously optimistic" about the reigning US Open champion making his 2:03pm start time in the final group of the first round.

The report also said that Johnson's doctor wanted him to avoid full-power swings and use only about 75 percent of his strength to ease the strain on the lower back area that was hurt in the fall.

Kevin Chappell, still seeking his first US PGA title, birdied two of the first three holes yesterday to seize the early lead in the opening round. The 30-year-old American, who qualified for the year's first major golf tournament by finishing second to Rory McIlroy at last year's Tour Championship, birdied the par-5 second and par-4 third to stand on 2-under.

That was one stroke ahead of compatriots Scott Piercy and Russell Henley and Scotland's Sandy Lyle.

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