The Masters golf tournament, plagued by rain in recent years, began Thursday morning under blue skies and a brilliant sun. Australian Rod Pampling was the early leader with a 2-under 34 at the turn. Defending U.S. Open champion Michael Campbell was among four golfers at 1 under. Tiger Woods teed off at midmorning.

Defending champion Woods, with four green jackets already, is the favorite.

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Sixteen players were making their Masters debut Thursday, and another 16 had less than three years experience at Augusta National. Combined, these johnny-come-latelies account for more than a third of the 90-player field — undeniable signs of a youth movement at the venerable ol' course.

Charles Coody knew he was in trouble when he went searching for the 11th tee, backed up about 30 yards since last year and obscured by the towering pine trees at Augusta National.

"I was looking for the resuscitator," the 67-year-old Coody quipped, "after the walk I had just to get there."

While extreme, Coody's plight exemplifies the challenge facing the older generation at the super-sized home of the Masters, which begins Thursday.

While the inclusion of past champions has always been a revered tradition at a club that zealously guards its history, the 60- and 70-somethings — heck, even the 50-somethings — are being pushed aside by the ever-expanding course.

Coody says this will be his last Masters. It's hard to see 70-year-old Gary Player or 63-year-old Raymond Floyd hanging around much longer. Even Ben Crenshaw, still relatively young at 54, knows his days are numbered.

"It's time for us to pull over in the slow lane," quipped Crenshaw, a two-time winner. "If we don't pull over, they're going to run us over. I've already been run over many times."

Augusta National greased the inevitable by expanding its layout to a staggering 7,445 yards, though a few in the old guard are doggedly hanging on.

"I continue to play because of the tradition," said Floyd, the '76 champion. "I'm not here to be competitive. I'm here to be part of the history. I would never go over and play a regular Tour event because I'm not competitive."

A few years ago, club chairman Hootie Johnson sent out those infamous letters to three former winners (Billy Casper, Doug Ford, Gay Brewer) asking them in not-so-tactful terms to give up their automatic spots in the field.

Even though Johnson hasn't used that tactic again, the message is clear: It's time to step aside if you're not showing at least a semblance of being competitive.

Arnold Palmer got the hint, playing for the final time in 2004 as he closed in on his 75th birthday. Jack Nicklaus was 65 when he followed suit after last year's Masters, saying he didn't want to play the tournament if he was only being viewed as a monument. This is the first time since 1954 that neither Palmer nor Nicklaus will play in the Masters.

With the ever-growing course — it's grown by 460 yards during the past five years — look for aging players to step aside a lot quicker than they did before.

"It's crossed my mind," said Crenshaw, who hasn't made the cut since 1997. "It won't be too much longer before I'm done."

There are only four 50-something golfers in the field, Crenshaw among them. By comparison, 22 players are 30 or younger, driving down the average age to 37.3 for this year's field.

So, in this era of youth being served, will someone ever be able to pull off another 1986? Let's ask Nicklaus, who was 46 when he became the oldest winner in Masters history two decades ago.

"He'd better be pretty long to start with," said Nicklaus, who put Tom Lehman and Fred Couples in that group.

The course conditions could push more people in the mix, especially veterans such as Bernhard Langer who know the place like their own backyard — even with all the changes.

"If the golf course is relatively fast," Nicklaus said, "it brings a lot more people into the game."

Arron Oberholser, making his Masters debut at 31, knows the value of experience at Augusta National. Pure power isn't enough.

"I have no expectations," he said. "I just want to have a good time and learn the golf course, because this won't be my only one."

In years to come, as golfers such as Oberholser becomes regulars, there aren't likely to be enough old-timers to put together fan-favorite pairings such as Nicklaus-Palmer-Player or Coody-Casper-Brewer. Even if there were, Augusta National seems to be moving away from the concept, splitting up the three over-60 golfers in this year's field.

Crenshaw is OK with that. He sees no need to have a bunch of old guys clogging up the course.

"A lot of us are perfectly happy with that," he said. "We've had our time. It's time to start watching these young guys."