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Apr 8, 6:25 PM EDT

Brooks Koepka hurting as he prepares for Masters debut


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AP Photo/Matt Slocum

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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- This wasn't how Brooks Koepka wanted to play in his first Masters.

Koepka is among 20 players making their debut at Augusta National, and the course would seem to fit well with his power. But three weeks ago, he injured a rib in his lower left back and withdrew during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational to rest up for the Masters.

He still was feeling it during three days of nine-hole practice rounds.

"It's not bad enough that I can't play," Koepka said. "But it's not good enough to be 100 percent."

Koepka is getting treatment daily, and he said the condition improves each day. His hope was to be close to fully healthy by the weekend, though his first step is to make the cut. He plays the opening two rounds with Graeme McDowell and Matt Kuchar.

What concerns the 24-year-old from Florida is that he flinches as he follows through on his swing and tends to lift up his left arm to protect the rib, even though "that actually makes it worse," Koepka said, managing a laugh.

He played a practice round with Rory McIlroy, a good friend from their time on the European Tour and in West Palm Beach, Florida. Koepka said he is not going at it full strength, but "I can hit a nice poke down there and keep up with Rory."

Koepka won the Turkish Airlines Open last year, and then picked up his first PGA Tour victory at the Phoenix Open. He first qualified for the Masters by tying for fourth in last year's U.S. Open and is now ranked No. 19 in the world.

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TEXAS TWO-STEP: Jordan Spieth got a text message that already made this a worthwhile Masters.

It was from Ben Crenshaw, checking in to see if he was available for a practice round.

"I've always wanted to play here with him, and to get him on his last practice round is pretty cool," Spieth said Wednesday after playing the back nine. "He texted me last night and I was pretty excited. And then Tiger joined us, and it was even better."

That would be Tiger Woods, who was going off the front until he saw the two Texans and joined them.

Crenshaw is a Texas legend to Spieth, who also became a Longhorn. They were supposed to play a practice round last year but got rained out. Crenshaw has announced this will be his final Masters.

For Spieth, nine holes was enough time to pick up a few tips from Crenshaw.

"He was really helpful on the greens," Spieth said. "He would say, `This one is quicker than it looks,' or `This one has a little more break.' Mostly he talked about speed."

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HOW `BOUT THEM DAWGS: Expect to hear plenty of barks and chants of "Go Dawgs!" from the Masters patrons.

Six players from the nearby University of Georgia - not to mention Patrick Reed, who started his college career with the Bulldogs - will be playing this week at Augusta.

That is twice as many players as any other school.

Defending champion Bubba Watson leads the list of Masters players who count Georgia as their alma mater, joined by Erik Compton, Brian Harman, Russell Henley, Chris Kirk and Brendon Todd. Reed initially enrolled at Georgia before transferring to Augusta State, leading the Jaguars to back-to-back national championships.

The University of Georgia is about 100 miles from Augusta National.

"You hear a lot of `Go Dawgs!' You hear a lot of barking," Watson said. "When you get to see that many people from a school, it is like a fraternity. You can root for those people. Obviously, I want to beat them all, but you root for them and cheer them on."

Watson will be going for his third Masters title in four years, trying to join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only golfers to win back-to-back titles.

Compton, Harman and Todd are playing at Augusta for the first time.

"There's a lot of great Georgia golfers here. We're very proud of that," Compton said. "Hopefully all of us will have a great week."

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TOAST TO A CHAMPION: Billy Casper was remembered at the Champions Dinner.

Ben Crenshaw was among those who told stories about the 1970 Masters champion, who died in February at age 83.

"He was a great gentleman," Crenshaw said, who brought back the description once made by the late Dave Marr. "He always said that Billy was a really nice man. But when he got close to the lead, he got mean. That was perfect."

The Champions Dinner also included a toast for six-time champion Jack Nicklaus, who recently received the Congressional Gold Medal.

The 75-year-old was saluted again Wednesday when he made a hole-in-one during the Par 3 Contest.

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LEISHMAN WITHDRAWS: With his wife recovering from a serious illness, Marc Leishman withdrew from the Masters.

Audrey Leishman thought she was battling the flu last week until it turned more threatening. She made it through what her husband described as a "life-threatening medical emergency" and is recovering well.

Even so, Leishman felt it was important to stay with his wife and their two young sons, ages 3 and 18 months.

The 31-year-old Leishman played in the final group with Adam Scott in 2013 and tied for fourth. In a moment of Aussie spirit, he was seen pumping his first when Scott made a birdie putt on the 18th and went on to become the first player from Down Under to win the Masters.

Leishman's withdrawal left 97 players in the field. The Masters does not have an alternate list.

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AP National Writer Paul Newberry contributed to this report.

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