Charley Hoffman the early leader at the Masters!

Charley Brett

Charley Hoffman took a quick lead Thursday morning in the first round of the 79th Masters with a solid 5-under 67, but that’s not where the excitement started for Hoffman, who was in the first group off at 7:45 a.m. with Brian Harman (76).

Hoffman was at the Tournament Practice Facility alongside Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the ceremonial starters who hit the opening tee shots at 7:40.

“It was cool getting up this morning and warming up with Jack, Arnie and Gary Player,” Hoffman said. “Puts the nerves at ease, really, watching those guys warm up.

“Out there at the putting green, I actually got Jack’s and Arnie’s autograph. They were nice enough to do that. I was sort of scared. ‘Should I ask them? Should I not ask them?’  My mind wasn’t really on golf, really, I was watching those guys.”

The nerves extended to the first tee where Hoffman hooked his drive into the ninth fairway, but he made a nice recovery and saved par. Birdies followed on the second and third holes.

Hoffman got a glimpse of the ceremonial opening drives, Palmer was first, followed by Player and Nicklaus.

“I could see the balls fly, but I couldn’t really see them swing,” said Hoffman, 38, who joined the PGA Tour in 2006. “But yeah, I was on the putting green, sort of hitting a few putts and watching a few shots.

“This is only my second Masters, and obviously to follow those guys off the tee, I mean, it’s pretty lucky and special. I’m honored that the Masters gave me that opportunity, and I sort of took advantage of it, and it was nice. I knew going into it, I like playing early and I like playing at a decent pace, so I knew this was going to benefit my game pretty well.”

Hoffman will donate the autographed flags to raise money for charities.

“I thought about it yesterday leaving the golf course,” he said. “I bought a couple flags, and I wasn’t sure if I’d ask them when they were warming up or on the first tee, but I ended up asking, ‘Would you mind signing the flag for me?’  I’ll auction them off for my foundation event and make some money for some kids. They were nice enough to do that for me. Gary was gone.

“I just said, ‘Do you mind signing this for me?’ I got in and out of there as fast as I could.”

“I think any time you step on this property, it’s hard. It’s a major championship, and it’s the coveted Green Jacket you want to get.”

At the 15th hole, Hoffman had 240 yards to the green, a perfect distance for his 20-degree hybrid. He hit it to 12 feet behind the hole and made the putt for an eagle. He followed that with a birdie-par-birdie finish to shoot his best round at Augusta.

Hoffman, a nine-year veteran of the PGA Tour, has won three times, the most recent coming early this year at the Mayakoba Golf Classic. He won the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in 2007 and the Deutsche Bank Championship in 2010.

Hoffman made his Masters debut in 2011, finishing tied for 27th with rounds of 74-69-72-72, but he hadn’t played in the Masters since. He said he wasn’t approaching the Tournament any differently than others.

“I think any time you step on this property, it’s hard,” Hoffman said. “It’s a major championship, and it’s the coveted Green Jacket you want to get. I’m trying to approach it like if I get in position, I’m going to be aggressive. If I get out of position, I’m going to try to get back in position, just like any other golf tournament.”