Jim Souhan
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AUGUSTA, GA. — The Masters begins this morning at Augusta National Golf Club. At 6:30 a.m. Central time, Lee Elder joined Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus to hit ceremonial first tee shots.

Elder was the first Black player to participate in the Masters, in 1975, and his presence is the latest sign that Augusta National is trying to distance itself from its discriminatory past.

Fred Ridley, chairman of the club, introduced Elder first, saying, "Lee, it is my privilege to say, you have the honors.''

Ridley also said: "Today, Mr. Elder will once again inspire us with his presence, strength and character.''

Elder, 86, had been sitting in a white chair as Nicklaus and Player stood by his side. He stood to acknowledge an ovation from the crowd. Cameron Champ, the only Black player in this year's Masters, stood nearby, along with Black PGA members who were there as Elder's guests.

Nicklaus and Player hit shots off the first tee. Elder, who is using a cane to get around, did not.

In the interview room, Elder spoke of the difficulty of funding a PGA Tour career when he was competing, that he couldn't find sponsors, so he had to win money on lesser tours to be able to afford playing on the big tour.

He said he had to show a bank balance of $6,500 to be allowed on the Tour.

"I certainly hope that the things that I have done have inspired other young, Black players,'' Elder said.

On to the golf...

The course is beautiful. The azaleas are in full bloom, and what is most intriguing is that the greens are already trending toward brown.

This course will play fast, which will make precise approaches vital. The ball will not plug on the green the way it did occasionally in November. As Phil Mickelson said, fast greens are the Masters' defense against aggressive play.

The combination of fast fairways and fast greens makes Augusta National even more of a risk-reward course than usual. Long drivers will be in position to attack par-5s, but keeping the ball on the greens will be more difficult.

On to the players...

Picking a winner at a golf tournament is rather silly, especially since Tiger Woods stopped "dominating'' majors by averaging a little more than one major title a year during his prime.

The logical picks this week:

Dustin Johnson: He remains ranked first in the world and won here in November. The course is expected to play much faster this week, but he's handled difficult conditions before.

Jordan Spieth: He broke a four-year drought with his victory at the Valero Texas Open on Sunday. He finished in the top 11 in his first five Masters, winning once, and appears to have regained the form that made him a threat in virtually every major.

Justin Thomas: Ranked No. 2 in the world, he has an ideal game to conquer Augusta National. He hits it far and high and can shape shots either way with virtually every club.

Bryson DeChambeau: On a fast course, his length should be a great advantage, and his ability to hit short clubs onto fast greens should also be an advantage. He has talked about starting the tournament by driving the ball over the trees along the right side of the first fairway, which is something no one has ever done - at least intentionally - before.

Forced to pick one, I'd take Thomas.

I'll have a column and sidebar in the paper and at startribune.com each day, plus periodic morning and afternoon updates from Augusta National.