April 6, 2017 / 1:55 PM / 4 months ago

Golf-Masters under way as Augusta waits on Johnson's fitness

AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 6 (Reuters) - The U.S. Masters started in bright and blustery conditions on Thursday with the fitness of world number one Dustin Johnson the major talking point around Augusta National.

Johnson, the American favourite to win the title after victories in his last three tournaments, sustained a back injury in a freak accident on Wednesday and was due to begin his first round in the final group out at 0203 PM local time (1803 GMT).

Former Masters champions Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player struck the ceremonial opening tee shots to get the 81st edition of the year's first major off to a sombre start as they honoured Arnold Palmer, who died in September at the age of 87.

Thousands of golf fans wearing commemorative badges confirming their membership of Arnie's Army stood to attention during a poignant silence broken only by the sound of a chilled wind rustling through the trees.

Augusta National chairman Billy Payne addressed the crowds before Nicklaus and Player hit their drives without their long-time friend and rival at their side.

"Welcome to the 2017 Masters. It is a wonderful, but in one respect a difficult day," Payne said. "For the first time in many many decades, someone is obviously missing from the first tee.

"The almost unbearable sadness that we all feel by the passing of Arnold Palmer is only surpassed by the love and affection for him."

The bright weather was a relief for organisers, who were forced to call off the Masters Par 3 contest on Wednesday for the first time ever as heavy rain and storms buffeted the course.

American Russell Henley was the early leader on one under par after seven holes as the players found birdies hard to come by in the swirling winds.

England's Danny Willett will begin the defence of his title at 1224 PM alongside American Matt Kuchar and Australian amateur Curtis Luck.

World number two Roy McIlroy of Northern Ireland is among the late starters in a group with Japan's Hideto Tanihara and Spaniard Jon Rahm.

Editing by Mark Heinrich

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