Lee Elder, left, the first Black player in Masters history, drew applause from fellow honorary starters Jack Nicklaus, right, and Gary Player, center, at the first tee ceremony Thursday to start the 85th Masters at Augusta National

Augusta (United States) (AFP) - Lee Elder, the first Black golfer in Masters history, was hailed in a first tee ceremony on Thursday to open the 85th edition of the major showdown at Augusta National.

In a tribute to his barrier-breaking legacy, Elder joined retired champions Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player in an honorary starter role before the field of 88 began chasing the green jacket symbolic of Masters supremacy.

“This by far exceeds anything that has ever happened to me in golf,” Elder said.

The 86-year-old American made history by playing in the 1975 Masters but called the chance for a ceremonial return “one of the biggest events I’ve ever been involved with.”

Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley called Elder an inspirational trailblazer whose strength and character in the face of threats motivated men and women of color to follow golf dreams, paving the way for 15-time major winner and five-time Masters champion Tiger Woods.

“To earn an invitation to the Masters and stand at that first tee was my dream and to have it come true in 1975 remains one of the greatest highlights of my career and life,” Elder said.

“To be invited back to the first tee one more time to join Jack and Gary means the world to me.”

Elder was seated at the first tee when Nicklaus and Player walked from the clubhouse to applause, former champions Bubba Watson and Phil Mickelson among those greeting the legends before starting their rounds.

Elder drew the loudest applause of all when he was introduced. He was helped to his feet, holding his driver but not making a shot, instead standing and waving to the crowd, smiling as he looked around to soak in the moment before sitting down.

Augusta National welcomed the first spectators at a major championship since 2019 after Covid-19 forced a ban on fans last year. A limited number of patrons, reportedly about 12,000, were allowed under virus safety protocols.

Firm and fast conditions will make it difficult to stop the ball on the undulating and lightning-quick Augusta greens, calling for precise tee shots to set up testy approaches.

“I’ve seen a few of the young guys with that ‘Deer in the headlights’ look after seeing a few of these greens,” England’s Paul Casey said.

It’s going to call upon ultimate shotmaking skills from the world’s best golfers, with experience a key advantage regarding where not to hit the ball to set up trouble.

“Some world-class players are going to look like fools out here if this course stays firm and fast,” said sixth-ranked American Xander Schauffele.

Top-ranked defending champion Dustin Johnson will try to become only the fourth player to win back-to-back Masters titles, joining Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and the most recent, Woods from 2001-2002.

Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion, seeks a victory to complete a career Grand Slam. The world number 12 from Northern Ireland has tried to simplify his swing and unclutter his thoughts working with new coach Pete Cowen.

Four-time major winner Brooks Koepka will play despite right knee surgery last month that makes bending painful and tricky, but says, “If I didn’t think I could win I wouldn’t be here.”

World number three Jon Rahm only arrived at the course on Wednesday after his wife gave birth to their first child on Saturday, the Spaniard hoping a relaxed mind can offset a lack of practice time.

Second-ranked Justin Thomas, the 2017 PGA Championship winner, can overtake Johnson for world number one with a victory. The Players Championship winner has finished progressively better in every Masters start, placing fourth last year.

Reigning US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau, a winner at Bay Hill, brings his long-driving style to Augusta with a prototype driver in his bag and plans to challenge par-5 and long par-4 holes from his very first tee shot.

- Thomas, Spieth off late -

England’s 47-year-old Lee Westwood, a runner-up at The Players Championship and Bay Hill, will try to become the oldest winner in Masters history, breaking the age mark of 46 set by Nicklaus in 1986.

Three-time major champion Jordan Spieth, who snapped a four-year win drought last week in Texas, hopes to don the green jacket as he did in 2015.

Absent this week is Woods, who is at home in Florida recovering from major leg injuries suffered in a February car crash.

Johnson, McIlroy, Rahm, Westwood and Koepka make morning starts in hopes of an early charge while DeChambeau, Spieth and Thomas are in the final three trios of the afternoon wave.