AUGUSTA, Georgia - Rory McIlroy surged to the top of the Masters with a 7-under 65 on Thursday. He was in the clubhouse three shots clear of the field, poised to become the youngest first-round leader in Masters history.
It was a reminder of his dynamic start last year in the British Open. McIlroy opened with a 63, only to slump to an 80 in the howling wind of St. Andrews the next day.
He shouldn't face those conditions in Georgia, where the forecast called for warm, clear weather through the weekend. Whatever happens, he feels better prepared to deal with any adversity.
"At the time, it was very disappointing," McIlroy said, referring to his second-round collapse at St. Andrews. "But looking back, it was probably very valuable in my progression as a golfer."
He rallied to finish third in the British Open, though far behind winner Louis Oosthuizen, and was third at the U.S. PGA Championship. Throw in his performance at the Ryder Cup, where he helped Europe reclaim the trophy from the U.S., and it's easy to understand why the 21-year-old from Northern Ireland is considered a star-in-the-making.
He sure had it going at Augusta National, taking advantage of nearly perfect conditions for scoring: A sunny day with only the slightest breeze. McIlroy started rolling at the par-5 second with the first of three straight birdies, and kept it going through a bogey-free round.
"I trusted everything," he said. "I trusted where I wanted to hit the ball. That's the key around here. With some of these pins, you can get tentative and try to guide it in there. You just have to pick your targets and trust your swing. I was very happy with the way I did that."
McIlroy doesn't expect to fall apart on Friday.
"I have that experience to draw on," he said, "especially being in a similar position to last year at St. Andrews. I feel like I'm better prepared to tee off in the second round of a major with the lead."
Tiger Woods wasn't anywhere near the lead, but at least he wasn't totally out of it. Mired in the longest winless streak of his career, he made a long putt at No. 14, lipped out several others and finished with a 71.
He considered it a promising start.
"I'd rather be where Rory is," Woods said, glancing at the scoreboard from behind the 18th green. "But, hey, there's a long way to go. We've got a long grind ahead of us. ... I'm very pleased. I'm only six back."
While Woods has gone 20 tournaments over 17 months without a win, he's always a contender at Augusta National, where he's captured four green jackets and finished fourth a year ago.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson teed off in the next-to-last group and pushed his opening tee shot into the trees left of the fairway. He scrambled to save the first of seven straight pars, before a birdie at No. 8 pushed him into the red for the first time.
Mickelson was coming off a three-stroke win at Houston, his first triumph since last year's Masters and a sign that his game was peaking at just the right time.
Former U.S. PGA champion Y.E. Yang was closest to the lead, dropping to 5 under with an eagle at the par-5 13th. Matt Kuchar shot 68, tied at 4 under with two other players still on the course: Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel.
Two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen had the early lead after holing out an eagle from the fairway on the first hole. But the South African limped to the finish with three straight bogeys for a 70 that felt much worse.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer came in as the world's top-ranked player, but he's never made it to the weekend at Augusta. It looks like the German will be going home early for the fourth year in a row, opening with a dismal 78 his worst score yet in the Masters.
Lee Westwood is a former No. 1 in the second spot behind Kaymer. The Englishman is regarded as the best player never to win a major, an unwanted distinction he'd sure like to erase from his record. He has some work to do, too, bogeying the final hole for a 72.
Six of the top seven players have a shot at leaving Augusta in the No. 1 spot if they win, including third-ranked Mickelson, who squandered a dozen chances last year to take it. The next two No. 4 Luke Donald and fifth-ranked Graeme McDowell also are in the running.
The day began shortly after sunrise with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer striking ceremonial tee shots, the traditional start to the year's first major.
With the overnight chill still lingering, the 81-year-old Palmer hit a little fade that stayed in the fairway. The 71-year-old Nicklaus went next, ripping one right down the middle about 30 yards past his longtime rival.
"I guess it's still kind of fun to lop it off the first tee and be part of a great event," Nicklaus said. "People enjoy it. It's Augusta's way of honoring its past champions and people such as Arnold and myself. It's really quite nice they allow us to do this."