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Veterans stake claim at Augusta National

Veteran golfers Fred Couples and Miguel Angel Jimenez carded solid opening rounds at the Masters.

Veteran golfer Miguel Angel Jimenez with his customary warm-up cigar. Picture: Facebook.com

LONDON - Fred Couples carried on his love affair with Augusta National by shooting a one-under 71 in Thursday's first round of the Masters and then posed a question that would have thrilled his legion of fans.

"Can a 50-year-old win here? I think so. I'm one of them," said Couples, the 1992 champion whose silky smooth swing and laid back demeanour have made him a fan favourite.

"I'm not here just to play golf. I love the course and I would say my 71 is in pretty darn good shape."

Couples, 54, is playing in his 30th Masters and has played well at Augusta in recent years, leading some to wonder if he might be able to take over as the oldest Masters winner from Jack Nicklaus, who was 46 when he won his sixth in 1986.

The American has finished in the top 15 each of the last three years, holding the 36-hole lead in 2012 on his way to a tie for 12th, and he finished in sixth place in 2010.

In 29 Masters, the long-hitting Couples has registered 11 top-10 finishes.

It was also a strong day for Spanish veteran Miguel Angel Jimenez, who made the turn at four under par before stalling at Amen Corner with a bogey at 11 and a double-bogey at the par-three 12th to join Couples on 71.

Just like the Rioja wine he loves to drink after a round of golf, Jimenez seems to get better with age and, apart from two shots, the Spaniard was in sparkling form.

The 50-year-old from Malaga, who bettered his own record as the European Tour's oldest winner at the Hong Kong Open in December, birdied four of the first nine holes.

"It was nice," Jimenez told reporters after parring the last six holes in dazzling sunshine to finish three strokes behind pacesetting American Bill Haas.

"I was four-under-par in the first nine holes and that's the best start that I have had here. I played beautiful golf today, beautiful. Only two holes I made bad mistakes.

"I hit a poor shot on 11 and then I hit a poor shot on the 12th. But after that I played beautifully and it was really nice. I'm very pleased to be four under after nine holes and moving on."

Known for his laidback demeanour and cigar-puffing warmup routine on the practice range, Jimenez said he always tried to have fun while playing competitive golf.

"When you get older, you need to concentrate on the shots and between shots just try to be yourself, try to put a smile on your face and don't worry about everything else," he grinned.

"You need to smile and make the fans feel happy."

As for his cigars, that was an enjoyment he reserved for before and after rounds of golf.

"On the course, I don't smoke," said the 20-times European Tour winner, whose best major finish was a tie for second at the 2000 U.S. Open. "I don't want to lose my cigar out there.

"There's enough worry about the game to worry about where I left my cigar. I smoke them before and after or while practising. But I don't smoke them on the course."

Asked whether he would be returning to the practice range after speaking to reporters, Jimenez replied: "I'm going to eat, have a cigar and then go to the range."

Scotsman Sandy Lyle, the 1988 winner, reached three under par by the fourth hole with three successive birdies before slipping back.

Twice winner Ben Crenshaw, 62, said he saw no reason why Couples could not remain in the chase.

"Fred loves this place. I wouldn't be surprised if he stays in there most of the week," Crenshaw, whose veteran magic deserted him on the way to an 11-over-par 83.

"And Jose is just one fascinating player. He hits the ball right in the middle of the club nearly every time. And he's a good thinker."

Couples, who won this year's Toshiba Classic for his 10th Champions Tour victory, admitted it was difficult to perform at a high level at Augusta after growing accustomed to senior tour competition.

"It's hard for me personally to play a course this hard day after day after day after day for four solid rounds," said Couples. "But my goal is to compete with these guys and not really worry about them.

"I'm happy with what I shot," said Couples, who bogeyed the 12th and the par-four 17th on the way in.

Couples, who has 15 career PGA Tour wins, the last coming at the 2003 Houston Open, said that if the likes of defending champion Adam Scott or young two-time majors winner Rory McIlroy play well he cannot beat them, but he still held out hope.

"If I play well, I can compete with them and maybe with nine holes to go, I hit four unbelievable shots and do something good," said easy-going Couples with a grin.

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