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Imada enjoying first Masters experience

AUGUSTA - Former Georgia Bulldog Ryuji Imada made the cut on the number in his first Masters and was the first to tee off on moving day.

Right away he noticed yet another reason why Augusta National is unlike any other place.

"If it's just like a regular PGA Tour event, you never see anybody on the golf course if you're first off," Imada said after his third round Saturday. "But there were thousands of people lined up on the first tee.

"If that doesn't excite you, nothing will. It's always fun playing in front of a lot of people. Even though I was the first group off, there was so many people out there and cheering for me and Stuart (Appleby). It was a fun day and I'm just glad to be here."

Imada shot even par for the second straight day and remained 1-over for the tournament.

The 32-year-old turned pro in 1999 after leading Georgia to its first national championship as a sophomore. He earned his PGA card in 2005 after five years toiling on the Nationwide Tour, but this was the first time Imada qualified for the Masters. He did it by finishing 25th on the money list last season, a standing helped greatly by his victory at the AT&T Classic in Duluth.

Imada is a 10-year veteran of the pro circuits, but this isn't a course that favors first-timers. Fuzzy Zoeller was just the third, and the most recent, rookie to win it 30 years ago. The others were in the tournament's first two years - Horton Smith in 1934 and Gene Sarazen in 1935.

Imada played Augusta National three times while at UGA and has now completed three more rounds. It hasn't gotten any easier to navigate though.

"I'm getting better at it, but it's still a very tough golf course," Imada said. "You never know what the winds are doing and even when you get on the green, you think it's a straight putt and it breaks five feet."

"It's tough to get used to it, but I'm getting there," he said with a small smile.

With just one day left in his first week at the Masters, Imada has yet to take the place for granted.

"I don't think (the thrill) will ever wear off for me," he said. "This is a place I've always dreamed about playing."

Imada said it would still be special after 50 times.

"Even (Gary) Player, he's still excited to come back," Imada said of the three-time champion who played in his 52nd and final Masters this week.

The enthusiasm of the fans certainly plays a part in that atmosphere. The whole country may be suffering through a recession, but people still come out to Augusta in droves.

"Well, I've heard (rental) houses are going for a little bit lower than in the past," Imada said. "But this is a very special place and everybody I've talked to, they've all loved it.

"This is one special place."

Imada had fans from near and far following him. There was a "Go Dawgs!" call on the 16th hole and a gaggle of Japanese women cheering for him as he got to the scorer's building at the end of a round that featured its only setback in Amen Corner.

Imada, who moved from his native Japan to the U.S. when he was 14, said the course was largely unaffected by the severe storms that pounded much of the state Friday night.

"They've done a really good job of keeping the golf course in good shape," he said. "And I guess the water drains really well here. No, it really didn't affect it much. The greens were a little bit softer, which made it more receptive to good shots."

He made several of those on the front nine, hitting birdies on Nos. 5 and 7. Imada considered his putt on No. 5, a 30-footer from the bottom of the slope, to be the highlight of the round.

After a red number there and on the par-4 7th, Imada was in good position with the back nine having yielded quite a few opportunities for low scores. But Imada three-putted on 12 and 13 to move back to 1-over.

"I got a little bit aggressive on 12," he said. "I thought maybe if I could just get a birdie there, I've got two more par 5s coming in on the back and could put up a good number there. But I three-putted and that kind of changed the momentum.

"I made a great birdie on 5 and 7. I was a little disappointed I didn't make birdie on 8, but I made the turn at 2-under and that's just what I needed. I haven't really taken advantage of the back nine. The wind is swirling a little bit, but everybody else has been taking advantage of the back nine this week. I haven't done that yet."

He has one more chance to do that today - and hopefully 50 more down the road.