Senior moments at Masters

The Associated Press . Tom Watson watches his shot on the 12th fairway during the first round of the Masters on Thursday in Augusta.

The Associated Press . Tom Watson watches his shot on the 12th fairway during the first round of the Masters on Thursday in Augusta.

AUGUSTA -- Thursday's opening round of the 2010 Masters seemed like old times.

But 80-year-old Arnold Palmer and 70-year-old Jack Nicklaus serving as honorary starters early in the morning was only the beginning of a wave of golfing senior citizens making their presence felt at Augusta National.

Fifty-year-old Fred Couples, the 1992 champion, birdied four of his last seven holes to claim the clubhouse lead with a 6-under par 66, while two-time champion and 60-year-old Tom Watson was among a group of five just one shot back.

Meanwhile, two more former champions at age 50 or older -- Sandy Lyle and Bernhard Langer -- also broke par to remain well in the hunt almost two decades or more since last donning the coveted green jacket.

Throw in a round of even-par 72 by Kenny Perry, who turns 50 in August, and it might be easy to mistake the leaderboard for that of a Champions Tour event.

"I'm not surprised, but I'm thrilled, and I thought I could come here and play well because I have been playing well," said Couples, who has won three times and had another runner-up finish in four starts on the Champions Tour this year. "For Tom Watson, I can only tell you he didn't make a bogey (during his round). He made five birdies and I'm sure he made a couple par putts and I'm sure he missed a birdie putt here or there.

"For me to be 6-under and (Watson) to be 5-under, it's a great start for the older guys. I know Sandy Lyle played well, someone said, and so did Langer. It's course knowledge."

Langer was the first to start to turn back the clock, climbing to the top of the leaderboard at 3-under with his birdie at the 16th.

The 1985 and 1993 champion fell right back out of the lead after finishing with back-to-back bogeys.

However, his 1-under 71 was the first indication that the old guard would be heard from Thursday, even on an Augusta National course that favors the Tour's younger players who are more capable of being longer hitters.

"In general, I would say ... (the) over 50s, they can still win majors," Langer said. "It may be a little harder here because it's one of the longest courses that you play on the regular Tour.

"Fred Couples, he's over 50. He's got the length. Kenny Perry is close to that age, and he's got the length. Tom Watson and I are probably about 30 yards shorter than Freddie, and it's going to be a bit harder for us, but it's possible."

Lyle reinforced Langer's assertion by firing a 3-under 69 to stand just three shots off the pace by the day's end.

Watson then made the biggest noise among the elder statesmen with morning tee times, first with birdies on Nos. 1 and 3, and made the turn at 2-under.

Then, after birdies at 15 and 16, he lofted a 7-iron on his approach to the 18th green to about 15 feet of the pin before the ball caught the edge of a ridge and trickled about four feet.

He then sank the birdie putt to complete a round of 67, matching his career best round at Augusta National -- his final round of 67 in 1977, which won him that year's title.

That round came less than nine months after capturing the imagination of fans throughout the world by leading most of last year's British Open at Turnberry before falling to Duluth resident Stewart Cink in a playoff at age 59.

Thursday's round also suggests Watson's near miss at Turnberry was no fluke.

"Over the time at Turnberry, I would have to say there's been a certain glow about the whole situation, even though I finished second," Watson said. "And the glow comes from the people who watched it and who have come up to me and have commented to me about what they thought of it.

"You know, there's been a couple of them that -- actually, more than a couple -- but a lot of them have said, 'You know, I'm not too old now. You've just proven to me that I'm just not too old.'"

That may be true, but history suggests the odds are still very much against any of the elder statesmen in contention putting together three more rounds good enough to win the tournament.

Jack Nicklaus holds the record for oldest player to win the Masters with his title at age 46 in 1986.

In addition, a player age 40 or older has won just six times in the tournament's storied history.

But while Couples and his contemporaries know the reality of the situation, they still carry enough enthusiasm and confidence to believe they can make even more history.

"No, I'm leading the tournament, but there's a bunch of 5-unders out there," said Couples when reminded of his own quote from earlier in the week when he said it would be a pipe dream for him to win this weekend. "The pipe dream is, yeah, to win at Augusta at age 50 would be a pipe dream. Can I still win? Of course. It would be a nice dream, that's for sure, but I've got a lot of golf left to even think about being in contention."