Rory McIlroy displays driving ambition on opening day of Masters
Rory McIlroy fired a phenomenal opening fusillade with his crimson Covert driver at The Masters, but stuttered with his putter during an intriguing opening day at Augusta National.
McIlroy counted two three-putts among the 34 he took in a one-under par 71, which still represents a decent start by Northern Ireland's pre-tournament favourite.
He lay just three off the pace set by clubhouse leader Bill Haas. The American's four-under 68 was an impressive effort on an exacting course set-up, which Darren Clarke described as "a stiff cerebral challenge" after a first round 74.
"Whoever plays most-intelligently is going to win this," added Ulster's 45-year-old Augusta National veteran.
Adam Scott served clear notice of his intent to hang onto the Green Jacket with a resilient 69.
The Australian cut an imposing figure on three-under, with Louis Oosthuizen, the South African beaten in sudden death in 2012 by Bubba Watson, who himself appeared to be closing in on the lead on three-under with three to play.
Jonas Blixt of Sweden and America's Kevin Stadler and Jimmy Walker, three of the record 24 Masters newcomers in the 97-man field, were also close to the top of the leaderboard after impressive two-under par 70s.
They don't go for long introductions on the first tee at Augusta National. The starter might precede a player's name with a loud "Fore, please!" as he did yesterday for Rory McIlroy's two playing companions, Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed.
McIlroy, the 'old man' in this three ball at age 24, was introduced by name only ... no matter, the vast crowd packed around the first tee knew exactly who he is, where he hails from and his status in the game.
If they didn't, McIlroy announced himself in truly spectacular fashion with a booming drive that was followed down the fairway by one loud and very long word of appreciation from the chunky American standing at my left shoulder.
"Jeeeeeeeeezzzzzzz," he said as that Nike ball soared 315 yards onto the fairway long and left of the yawning bunker which sits on the right of this difficult dogleg.
Don't know if our vociferous friend made it as far as the second tee or the third. If he had, we'd probably have heard him as McIlroy made two more booming statements of intent with that crimson covert.
Not missing you so much already, could have been the message to the injured Tiger Woods as he sat at home in Orlando recovering from recent back surgery.
McIlroy's thrilling to watch when he's Tiger-striping his driver this way, even if the results weren't quite as spectacular as you'd expect on a gloriously cloudless and windless morning, when Augusta's putting surfaces were still a little receptive after recent rainfall.
McIlroy must have caught his wedge into the first a little heavy and his ball rolled back off the front. Given his painful record on this hole, a little discretion with the approach was understandable. A nice pitch and tap-in putt later, he walked off with a relatively satisfying par.
One couldn't say the same of his five at the second. After another ICBM of a drive landed in the fairway, McIlroy was a tad unlucky when it caught the front left bunker high, albeit high up the face.
Short-sided, he hit is escape 15 feet past the pin, then two putted for par.
Reed (23), took the honour with a nice up-and-down birdie from left of that green. After he and fellow Texan Spieth (20), another two Augusta greenhorns, both took four-iron off the tee at the 350-yard third hole, McIlroy sent a buzz of anticipation through the gallery by pulling out the driver.
One explosive swing later, his ball lay just 15 yards shy of the green. The young Ulsterman pitched to three feet and putted for a fabulously facile birdie.
When he holed from 20 feet for another at the tricky fifth, it looked as if McIlroy might, indeed, be capable of turning the clock back to Thursday in 2011, when he shot 65, his personal best at Augusta National.
Sadly, he stalled with a bogey six at the eighth hole, which, in yesterday's benign conditions, was like fiancée Caroline Woznaicki's bright pink hair ... shocking!
McIlroy did well to save par at his nemesis, the 10th hole, after hitting his approach a good 30 feet left of the pin on a green which tilts sharply from back to front. His first effort went past well up on the high side and he needed to make a clutch five-footer for par.
A three-putt bogey from 40 feet at 12 left McIlroy bow-headed with frustration.
Though birdie fours at 13 and 15 put the spring back in his step, the Holywood native rounded off his day with another three-putt bogey at 18.
After hitting his tee shot close to the lip of the fairway bunker, McIlroy's approach landed on the front, lower-level of the green, a country mile from the cup.
His first putt cruised past on the low side and six feet down the slope, leaving a ticklish six-footer which McIlroy missed.
Spieth matched McIlroy's 71, while Reed shot 73 after three finishing bogeys, a gut-wrenching spell in which he putted off the green at 17.
As ever, those Grand Masters of Augusta, Arnie Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player got the tournament off to its usual classy start at first light.
Yet you literally had to get up early to catch these venerable gents as they played their ceremonial tee shots a good five minutes early.
Mind you, they made up for it in the interview room afterwards, regaling the world's media at length with their views. One of the great pleasures of working at the Masters is simply listening as these legends willingly share their vast experience and knowledge.
They remain competitive, all three warming up on the range beforehand, Nicklaus explained "firstly not to hurt yourself and secondly not to embarrass yourself" adding after a short pause "perhaps most importantly not to embarrass yourself."
Palmer (84) hit first to mark the 50th anniversary of his fourth and final Masters win in 1964 and sent his ball a respectable 180 yards down the fairway. Player (78), hit his tee shot high and it landed halfway up the hill, 225 yards away.
Nicklaus then drew a throaty roar from the crowds as his drive pitched short of Player's and rolled a couple of feet past it.
It was intriguing to hear their divergent views on the demise of the infamous Eisenhower Tree which fell in February's ice storms.
It should be replaced on the left side of the 17th fairway by a near-identical replica, said Palmer. A new tree should be planted further up the hole, giving that area the definition it needs, suggested Nicklaus. Player, railing against any obstacles encroaching into the fairway, insisted it shouldn't be replaced at all.
Nicklaus let reporters know that his grand-daughter Casey, aged 18, had "a secret crush" on Scott "like all young girls do!"
So many must have been swooning as the debonair 33-year-old sped to the top of the leaderboard on four-under par through his opening 10 holes ... and tears dabbed away as Australia's darling made double-bogey five out of the water at 12.
Little hearts soared once again, however, as Scott picked up a birdie at 14. His three-under 69 served clear notice of the Aussie's intent to join Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods as the only men in history to successfully defend the Green Jacket.
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