By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - In front of a huge crowd, the 'Big Three' of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player launched the 78th Masters on Thursday while Adam Scott prepared to begin his title defense later in the day.
On a glorious morning of bright sunshine at Augusta National, four-times champion Palmer, three-times winner Player and Nicklaus, who won a record six green jackets, hit the ceremonial first shots at the par-four opening hole.
Palmer struck a solid blow up the middle before fellow golfing great Player out drove him by around 50 yards, his ball ending up well below the crest of the hill in the center of the fairway, some 210 yards from the tee.
Nicklaus hit the longest drive of the three, his ball bouncing up the middle of the fairway before settling a yard ahead of Player, a few yards to the right.
"Today no butterflies, just happy to get the first tee shot over," a smiling Nicklaus, 74, told reporters afterwards.
Five minutes later, American Stewart Cink struck the tournament's first competitive shot by teeing off at the opening hole. Cink was then followed by South African Tim Clark, who was runner-up here in 2006.
Australia's Scott, who won last year's title in a playoff with Argentina's Angel Cabrera, was scheduled to tee off with PGA Championship winner Jason Dufner and U.S. amateur champion Matthew Fitzpatrick at 1041 local (1441 GMT).
Northern Ireland's double major winner Rory McIlroy and Americans Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth were set to start one group after Scott, Dufner and Fitzpatrick.
Three-times champion Phil Mickelson will begin his bid for a fourth title along with South African Ernie Els and England's Justin Rose, the U.S. Open champion at 1348.
In other groupings, Swedish world number three Henrik Stenson will set off with Australian Jason Day and long-hitting American Dustin Johnson while 2011 winner Charl Schwartzel of South Africa has been paired with American Jim Furyk and Dane Thorbjorn Olesen.
In-form Jimmy Walker, who has won three times on the 2013-14 PGA Tour, will play his first ever round at the Masters in the company of fellow American Rickie Fowler and Northern Ireland's Graeme McDowell.
A notable absentee this week is world number one Tiger Woods, who has been sidelined since having back surgery for a pinched nerve.
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Julian Linden)