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HONORARY STARTER: Gary Player played in 52 Masters, and won the green jacket three times. He remembers driving through the gates of Augusta National for the first time as a young man in 1957, and most every big shot he ever played in the tournament.

Now he may be the most excited honorary starter in Masters history.

Player said he has been working toward Thursday’s start of the Masters ever since learning he would become an honorary starter for the first time. He plans to watch carefully to see who hits the longest tee shot when he, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus hit the ceremonial first shots.

“Absolutely,” Player said. “We’ve been very competitive.”

They were once golf’s Big Three, though Player was always No. 3 in the lineup. He was No. 1, though, when it came to keeping fit, and he still works as hard at being healthy as he did during his prime.

“I’ve been training very hard,” Player said. “I’ve just come from the gym right now, in fact. I increased my sit ups and my weights.”

The 76-year-old Player was named an honorary starter last summer. Like Palmer, who is 82, and the 72-year-old Nicklaus, he will play just his tee shot on No. 1, then retire to the clubhouse.

Still, he was thrilled for the opportunity to return to a course where he had such success and a tournament he holds so dear. He will also play with Palmer and Nicklaus in the par-3 contest on Wednesday.

“Playing with Arnold and Jack there, just, you know, it’s coming to an end; and if you want to say our lives, our careers, it’s the sunset,” he said. “To be able to replay, it’s like having a mulligan. And to be playing with them and things come back in your mind and being together and enjoying it with the people, it’s a special time.”

Player might be the favorite in his threesome. He shot a 66 last year and said he has been beating his age by an average of five shots every time he goes out.

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SUPERSTITIOUS LUKE: Luke Donald tried to do what no man has ever at Augusta National _ win the Par 3 Contest on Wednesday, and slip on a green jacket on Sunday. He only got the first part of the equation right, however, but his rally on the back nine came up short and he tied for fourth.

Donald only is thinking about the green jacket this year.

“I’ve decided this year I’m not going to play the Par 3,” he said with a grin. “Last year, I actually had a very focused goal of trying to win both of them, and it was something that I wanted to do _ something that was different, to try and defy convention I suppose. And I almost did it. I had a good chance at winning both. But this year, I’m just going to concentrate on the main one.”

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