By Mark Lamport-Stokes

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Gary Player has experienced virtually everything golf has to offer during his illustrious career but he expects to feel a flutter of nerves on his debut as an honorary starter at this week's Masters.

On Thursday morning, the 76-year-old South African will join six-times champion Jack Nicklaus and four-times winner Arnold Palmer to hit the ceremonial opening shots off the first tee at Augusta National.

"I'll be nervous but I'm already trying to control myself," fitness fanatic Player told reporters after working out in a nearby gym on Tuesday. "That's why I won a lot of tournaments, because coming down the line, I was able to control my nerves.

"I think genetics are an important thing in that. I was lucky to have the right genes, and I was lucky to be able to control my nerves."

Player, a nine-times major winner who enjoyed a long rivalry with Palmer and Nicklaus and an even longer friendship, briefly hesitated before trying to explain exactly how he would feel on the first tee.

"I don't know what the word is ... are you going to be pumped up? Are you going to be nervous? Are you going to be there with enjoyment? I think it's an accumulation of everything," he said.

"Obviously you have to feel a little bit nervous. It's on television and people are watching, and you want to hit the best drive of the three, so you have to be a little bit nervous."

Player laughed when asked if it was important to hit the longest drive of the three while launching the 76th edition of the Masters, the year's opening major.

"Absolutely. We've been very competitive over the years," smiled the South African, who won three green jackets at Augusta National and is one of only five players to win all four professional majors.

"We wanted to beat each other so badly, and we did beat each other on a lot of occasions; in medal tournaments, in match play events, and we had our share of beating each other.

"But the nice thing about it, when we did lose, we looked the other in the eye and said, ���Well done, but I'll get you next week'. That was our history of being together."

Player, who last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of his first victory at Augusta National, was delighted that the so-called Big Three would be reunited as honorary Masters starters.

"Between us, we have won over 350 golf tournaments around the world and we grew up, played together and competed against each other," he said.

"We have great love for each other and great respect for each other, and now to be teeing off on Thursday morning is a great honor for me, because I hold this course in high esteem.

"Teeing off with Arnold and Jack is going to be very special," added Player, whose glittering career included more than 160 tournament wins worldwide.

(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)