The real golf season starts Thursday with the first round of the Masters

Phil Mickelson smiles during a practice round prior

Phil Mickelson smiles during a practice round prior to the start of the 2013 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club. (April 9, 2013) (Credit: Getty Images)

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Golf season starts Thursday. Regardless of the fact that the tour has been running for three months and that even in the Northeast, rank-and-file golfers have played a round or two, the beginning of the Masters is when the public turns its eyes to golf.

Thursday is that day, with the first entrants in the year's first major championship scheduled to tee off at 8 a.m., just after Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus get it going as honorary starters. Television ratings and online site views suggest that the start of the Masters represents golf's symbolic Opening Day. It is that distinctive for people who watch it, and for those who play in it.

As Phil Mickelson said, making conversation as he waited for his news conference to start on Tuesday: "This is the best week of the year, isn't it?"

While that might be expected from someone who has won the Masters three times, it is the same talk you hear from golfers who have felt mostly heartache here. Take it from Brandt Snedeker, whose most vivid connection with Augusta National occurred in 2008, when his post-final round news conference dissolved in tears as he talked about having fallen short, in a tie for third.

"Growing up, watching this on TV, you realize this is bigger than golf," said Snedeker, the 2012 FedEx Cup winner. "There are big sporting events that you circle, that you watch every year, whether it be the Super Bowl or the Kentucky Derby or whatever. You realize there are people here who come not just for the golf, but for the event. It's fun to be a part of that. It's just a very different atmosphere from a normal event."

The same goes for Rory McIlroy, whose most famous Masters moment was a back-nine meltdown after he held a solid lead two years ago. The pull of Augusta National was just as strong in his childhood home in Ireland as it is in the United States. When he first played here, he was afraid to take a divot because the grass looked so pristine.

"It's just a very, very special place. I don't know if I can explain it," the two-time major champion said. "But every time you drive in the gates here it's a big thrill. I love it. I mean it's my favorite tournament of the year."

Nicklaus has been coming here since 1959. He won it six times, more than anyone else, beginning with his triumph 50 years ago. He also understands the Masters as well as anyone, having had annual chats with Augusta National founder Bobby Jones during early visits. Nicklaus respects and reveres all four majors, but sees this one -- with its limited, eclectic field on the same course every year -- in a different light.

"This is a tournament, the others are all championships. And to me, it's the most fun to play in," Nicklaus said. "There are so many things that came together to make this tournament what it is. People coming out of the snow -- half of the people coming out here are going to be putting on sun lotion to keep from getting fried. There are the flowers.

"From my standpoint, with Bob Jones as my idol, to me it has always been very special," Nicklaus said. "To have won it six times, that's pretty special, too."

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