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"Big Three" launch 76th Masters at sunny Augusta

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Watched by huge galleries, golfing greats Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player launched the 76th Masters on Thursday as Charl Schwartzel prepared to begin his title defense later in the day.

Under clear sunny skies 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 of the fairway before Player, on his debut as a ceremonial starter, outdrove him by around 50 yards, his ball ending up above the crest of the hill some 250 yards from the tee.

Nicklaus, the third member of golf's 'Big Three', then hit his drive midway between the two, also splitting the fairway before an excited fan shouted out: "Play on".

Ten minutes later, American Craig Stadler, the 1982 champion, struck the tournament's first competitive shot by teeing off at the opening hole.

South African Schwartzel, who won last year's title by two shots, was scheduled to tee off with PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley and U.S. amateur champion Kelly Kraft a little under three hours later.

Four-times champion Tiger Woods, who ended a two-and-a-half-year title drought on the PGA Tour with victory at last month's Arnold Palmer Invitational, was grouped with Spaniard Miguel Angel Jimenez and South Korea's Bae Sang-moon.

British world number one Luke Donald, Italy's Francesco Molinari and American Nick Watney will tee off one group after Woods, Jimenez and Bae.

U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy was paired with 2009 Masters winner Angel Cabrera and American Bubba Watson.

(Editing by Julian Linden)