AUGUSTA, Ga. - It's a major, and that can only mean one thing these days.
Rory McIlroy will be sitting atop the leaderboard.
The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland is the early leader at the Masters after shooting a 7-under 65 on Thursday. He has tied for third at three of the last five majors, including the last two. He also tied a major championship record when he opened with a 63 at St. Andrews in last year's British Open.
Of course, McIlroy followed that record round with an 80, a mistake he says he never should make again. But rallying to finish third at St. Andrews, plus his other top-three finishes, have shown him he's got the game to win a major, maybe even as early as this week.
His British Open collapse happened in the howling wind of the second round. McIlroy shouldn't face those conditions in Georgia the forecast called for warm, clear weather through the weekend but he feels better prepared to deal with any adversity.
"At the time, it was very disappointing," McIlroy said of 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 at the British Open, though far behind winner Louis Oosthuizen, and was third at the 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 young man 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 Day 2, as he did in Scotland.
"I hope it will help me," he said. "I have that experience to draw on, 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."