McIlroy finds some Masters magic in impressive opener
Spieth will take some catching though, writes Vincent Hogan
Rory McIlroy defied a solid drizzle of discouragement to come home well placed for a weekend charge on history under the pale Georgia sun.
A three-under-par 69, only his second time in 10 Masters tournaments to break 70 with his opening round, kept McIlroy within touching distance of the 2015 champion Jordan Spieth.
Five birdies in a row from 13-17 maintained Spieth's extraordinary record in Augusta, his 66 meaning he has now led this tournament nine different times in five visits.
It would have been even better but for a horrid hook off the tee on 18 by Spieth, costing him a bogey and McIlroy had reason to be pleased with a great recovery pitch on 18 for par, having pulled his approach wide left and into the gallery.
He hadn't been slow to back up his promise of an aggressive start, opening with a birdie on hole one for the first time in 10 visits here, then smoking a monstrous drive 353 yards, dead centre, down the second.
But birdies were proving hard to manufacture and fresh worries about his putting found early expression with a missed six-footer on the sixth that would have taken him to two-under.
In fact, he was back to level after bogey at seven, only to make an immediate recovery with his second birdie at eight.
One-under at the turn then, Rory would have seen he was three off the pace being set at the time by Henrik Stenson, Charley Hoffman and Adam Hadwin, all three of whom would come to grief with bogeys on 18. By mid-afternoon, those three had been joined at the top on 69 by Patrick Reed.
McIlroy should really, by then, have been with them too, but missed from 12 feet on 10, lipped out for another birdie on 11, then two-putted at 12, having just avoided the bunker at the back of the green.
We know you don't always have to be a wizard with the putter to win a Green Jacket; Ben Hogan got home twice essentially through beautiful ball-striking.
More recently, Adam Scott and Sergio Garcia became Masters champions in spite of reputations for being suspect on the greens.
And McIlroy's storming Bay Hill finish, five birdies in the last six holes, illustrated what he could do with a putter once his confidence is up.
But when you keep forsaking birdie opportunities like yesterday, it must feel like you're on a hamster wheel, running frantically to standstill.
McIlroy managed to get up and down from a bunker for birdie on 13 to be just two off the top now, a spot jointly occupied by Tony Finau, he of the bionic ankle, and China's Haotong Li who too would bogey a troublesome 18th.
Another birdie opportunity slipped by for McIlroy on 14, his 20-footer just skimming the hole. And he momentarily aborted his drive on 15, concentration seemingly disturbed by a maintenance vehicle passing by.
When he did hit, Rory found a bomb, leaving him just 199 yards to the flag.
His approach leaked a little to the left of the green but he still had an eagle putt of maybe 25 feet which he paced beautifully to maybe 18 inches for another birdie and three-under.
He then over-cooked his tee-shot on the short 16th, but succeeded in threading a treacherous downhill path in two putts. A good bunker-save par followed on 17, before McIlroy rescued a battling four on 18 to complete his best opening round since that 65 in 2011.
"Everything worked," smiled McIlroy after, that career Grand Slam still in his sights. "I drove the ball well, felt like I controlled my irons well, so really pleased with that start."