By Julian Linden
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - The galleries whoop and cheer when Tiger Woods drives the golf ball out of sight, nodding their heads in amazement at the incredible distances he and his fellow professionals now reach.
For some of the game's elder statesmen, however, those nods are being replaced by frowns and concern that technology is ruining the sport.
Golf's "Big Three", Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, all believe the time has come to try to limit the distances players can hit the ball.
"Personally, I think what has put the game of golf into a lot of trouble is that the golf ball is going so far, and you're finding golf pros going to play at different golf clubs," Player told a news conference at the Masters on Thursday.
"All they had to do was let the technology go with the average golfer, that's fantastic. But with professional golfers we have not seen big men come into this game yet.
"We are going to see the Michael Jordans and the likes come into golf, and they are already hitting drives 400 yards. They're going to be hitting it so far, it's frightening," added the 76-year-old South African.
Course designers have responded by lengthening their layouts and adding more hazards to combat the advancements but Nicklaus said the changes were only widening the gap between the professionals and amateurs.
"Today, you know, the average golfer cannot relate to the pro," the 18-times major champion said.
"But they need to figure out how to bring the average golfer and the professional golfer a little bit closer together."
All three men, who launched the 76th Masters with ceremonial tee shots at Augusta National on Thursday, agreed it was not plausible to go back to old-fashioned clubs but said golf authorities should consider changing balls to stop them travelling so far.
"I think that we all know that you can't really change the game from what it is today," Nicklaus added.
"That would be like asking the kids today to go back to wood clubs, and it would be like when we played, asking to go back to wood shafts.
"And I know the game changes. Golf ball is a very inexpensive thing to fix."
Palmer, 82, concurred. "I think that's vital that we slow the ball down," he said.
(Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)