By Larry Fine
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - After having the thrill of winning the Masters a record six times, Jack Nicklaus does not get terribly excited about joining Arnold Palmer and Gary Player to hit the ceremonial first shots at the tournament.
"We kid around with each other," Nicklaus, 73, said about his annual reunion with the other members of golf's 'Big Three'.
Told that golf fans look forward to watching them launch the championship, Nicklaus quipped: "We look forward to getting it over with every year."
The Golden Bear cranked out the long drive of the trio, hitting his tee shot from the first tee about 250 yards out into the left rough on an overcast start to the Masters.
"Hitting an opening shot to open up one of the biggest golf tournaments in the world, the first major of the year, is a very nice honor," he conceded, shedding his curmudgeonly air.
Of more interest to Nicklaus was the array of contenders amassed at Augusta National, which the 18-times major champion said showed a remarkable depth of talent.
"I'm glad to see Rory (McIlroy) playing better again because he really struggled this spring, and Tiger (Woods) is playing really, really well," he noted.
"Phil (Mickelson) is playing all right and he's always going to be a factor here," Nicklaus added about the three-time winner.
But Nicklaus was not through.
"Keegan Bradley has had a good spring and Nicolas Colsaerts, the golf course suits him pretty well. Some day he's going to do very well here.
"(Lee) Westwood and (Luke) Donald have both knocked on the door here, and Adam Scott has knocked on the door here. Dustin Johnson, this should also be a good golf course for him.
"And there's always a few guys you don't think about. You probably don't think a lot about K.J. Choi, but K.J. Choi is always right there," Nicklaus said about the South Korean, who has had two top-fives and a tie for eighth at the Masters.
Nicklaus said the bevy of contenders pointed to a rousing tournament this week.
"The field is as deep as it's ever been so I think that speaks well for the game, speaks well for international competition and growth of the game everywhere.
"You've even got 14-year-olds playing in the golf tournament," Nicklaus said, with a nod toward China's Asia-Pacific amateur champion Guan Tianlang, who on Thursday became the youngest competitor ever at the Masters.
"I think that's pretty special."
(Reporting by Larry Fine; Editing by Mark Lamport-Stokes)