Rory McIlroy reprises St Andrews start to make early surge at the Masters
IT WAS a day to remember for Rory McIlroy in The Masters yesterday - and one to forget for Padraig Harrington and world No 1 Martin Kaymer.
While they shot 77 and 78 respectively - Harrington nearly pulled out with neck trouble - 21-year-old McIlroy shone with a seven-under-par 65 and will go into the second round joint leader with big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros.
Two behind in third are Koreans YE Yang and KJ Choi, while Tiger Woods started with a 71 to be in a tie for 24th and defending champion and favourite Phil Mickelson with a 70 for joint 14th spot.
Despite some adventures three-time winner Mickelson, who made a late decision to drop a second driver from his bag, was heading for the only bogey-free round other than the one by McIlroy until he went into the crowd at the last and failed to get up and down.
Last man out Quiros, though, birdied the 18th to knock an amazing ten strokes off his previous best score on the course.
McIlroy's display brought back memories of his major record-equalling first-round 63 in The Open at St Andrews last July. But that is where the Northern Irishman hopes the comparisons end - McIlroy followed it with an 80.
He said: "It was not as explosive or as spectacular as St Andrews, but it was very solid and it's a great start." The best at The Masters, in fact, since Greg Norman's 63 in 1996.
"I felt as if my game's been really good all season and after working on my game in Florida for ten days with my coach Michael Bannon I feel very comfortable. I'm still relatively inexperienced, but I feel I am pretty quick learner. There's no substitute for experience and I've still got a lot of learning to do, but I am getting there. It was nice to see a few putts drop in as well and hopefully I can build on it.
"I think what happened at St Andrews will be a massive help. It was a very valuable lesson in my development as a golfer."
After saving par from the fairway bunker at the first McIlroy birdied the next three from two, five and 20 feet, and made a 10-footer on the ninth to turn in 32.
The 505-yard 11th is probably Augusta's toughest hole, but he struck a five-iron to eight feet for his fifth birdie and, after three-putting the long 13th for par, picked up further shots at the next two. First he holed from ten feet again and then he was on in two at the par five and two-putted.
Lee Westwood, who had the big setback of a six on the long eighth after "over-hooking" his second, had to settle for a 72 and again was not happy with his putting. "It's how my game is at the moment," said the world No 2. "If you can't hole it out from four feet, you're going to struggle, aren't you?"
Harrington's 77 matched his worst-ever round on the course and he commented: "I nearly pulled out before I started. I haven't even come close to swinging the club. I wanted to pull out, but I wouldn't - that's just my nature.
"But it wasn't much fun. I always have to be wary - I was swinging the left-handed shot, just warming up and it just kind of clicked."
Kaymer is heading for a fourth successive missed cut in the event and his 78 - the same as 1991 winner Ian Woosnam - represented a new low. He trudged away a broken man on, beaten into submission again by the Augusta National course he had so desperately wanted to conquer.
The world No 1 was made to look like any weekend hacker after shooting his worst single round in four appearances at the Masters and the German will need an amazing turnaround today to avoid making another early exit.
"There's some golf courses that suit you and some they just don't," Kaymer said. "It's obviously a huge tournament here and if it doesn't really suit your eye ... it's a little frustrating."
Kaymer's performance left him feeling more deflated than usual. He struggled in previous rounds at Augusta but embraced a radical strategy he hoped might end his wretched luck.
Instead of honing his skills in the cut and thrust of a competition, he took a two-week holiday with his family to clear his mind.
"I need to try something different again," he said. "I don't know what I have to do here. Maybe one day it will work out."
Kaymer, who won the US PGA Championship in a playoff at Whistling Straits last year and recently took over as the world No 1, said he was at a complete loss about how to play the course so was going to seek advice from compatriot Bernhard Langer, the 1985 and 1993 Masters champion. "There's not really a game plan," said Kaymer. "I think that I don't really know how to play the golf course.
"I think that maybe I've got to sit down with Bernhard Langer later and ask him. He's won here twice and I think I can only get good advice from him."
Woods, straining to remain upbeat as he struggles to regain form, said he was pleased after posting a 71 that put him six strokes off the pace.
"I'm right there in the ball game," said the former world No 1, who has gone nearly 17 months without a win and is trying to get the hang of a new golf swing. "I'm only six back and we got a lot of golf ahead of us."
The enormous gallery following Woods, which included his mother, Kultida, had few chances to erupt in approval for the four-times champion.
Woods sank a bomb of a birdie putt at the 14th to cap three strong holes of highlights for the 35-year-old American, who insisted he was on the brink of finding his touch. "I hit a lot of beautiful putts, a lot of beautiful putts," Woods said. "And they were just skirting the edge, so hopefully they will start going in."
As disappointing as Woods has been during the longest victory drought of his career, Augusta National could be the tonic for a revival. A year ago, Woods tied for fourth in an impressive return at Augusta after competing for the first time in nearly five months following the shocking unraveling of his private life. In 15 PGA Tour starts since, he failed to finish any higher.
Struggles finding the fairway kept Woods from getting off to a good start as he parred both par-fives after driving into bunkers. Two poor putts put Woods in a bind with back-to-back bogeys from the 10th. "A complete misread and bad speed," was how he described his par-putt at the tenth. On the next hole, he admitted: "I just pulled it. Pulled it. Bad putt."
Woods made amends by rolling in a testy, 12-foot downhill par-saving putt at the 12th that stopped the slide and saved him from making three bogeys in a row for the first time as a professional at the Masters dating back to 1997. Never the most accurate driver of the golf ball, Woods's return to the heights will likely be pegged to the reappearance of his magical short game and putting stroke.
"Most of the putts looked like they should have gone in," said Woods, who made a beeline for the driving range after the round. "I felt really good over the putts today and I hit a lot of good ones.
"I would rather be where Rory's at," he admitted. "But, hey, it's a long way to go. We have a long grind ahead of us."
England's Ross Fisher shares seventh spot after a 69. It was the second time in three years that the Englishman had vaulted into contention at a major amid concerns over his pregnant wife.
Fisher, whose wife Joanne is expecting their second child early next week, carded an adventuresome three-under-par to lie four shots off the lead.
Two years ago he entered the final round of the Open at Turnberry one shot off the pace but vowed to drop everything and return home if his wife went into labour. In the end no such interruption was necessary and he finished four strokes behind winner Stewart Cink of the US before rushing off to witness the arrival of daughter Eve.
"Hopefully it's not like last time, she hung on and I didn't," said Fisher. "Hopefully I can hang on this time."
Ian Poulter dropped four shots in the last four for a 74 - the same as US Open champion Graeme McDowell, who three-putted four times in six holes at the start of the back nine, and Scottish debutant Martin Laird.
Paul Casey had a 70, 53-year-old Sandy Lyle and Justin Rose 73s, and Luke Donald - the Par-3 competition winner - returned a 72 including a birdie-eagle-birdie burst from the 14th.
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