The world No 2, who is trying to join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in winning the game's four majors, was three-over-par after 12 holes in yesterday's opening round.
But he rallied to make three birdies over the closing stretch - at the 13th, 15th and 16th - and turned a potentially-damaging start to the event's 81st staging into an encouraging one.
'Yeah, I think so,' replied McIlroy to being asked if he'd struggled to salvage such a round earlier in his career.
'Short game and mentally. I would have struggled to put together a back nine like that in previous years. I've done the work on the short game and I believe I'm doing the right things.
'I just didn't want to give up. I wanted to put my head down, show a bit of grit, a bit of determination, and I was able to do that.'
The fightback left the four-time major champion sitting joint-12th on a day when just 11 players broke par, led by American Charley Hoffman as he opened up a four-shot lead following a brilliant 65.
'I've put a lot of hard work in on the putting green with Phil (putting guru Phil Kenyon) over the last few months and specifically on putts inside 10 feet to keep your round going.
'My short game really saved me today, especially on 10, 11, 12 which were huge. I got those three up and down, not that I had much momentum .
'Thankfully, I managed to birdie the two par-5s and another one coming in and even par was a great score, so I'm really happy with that.'
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Sergio Garcia is feeling confident about finally making his major breakthrough after a flawless start in testing first-day conditions at Augusta National.
The Spaniard's only deviation from par was a birdie at the eighth as he carded a 71 to sit in an eight-strong group in joint-fourth behind pacesetter Charley Hoffman.
'It's probably my first bogey'‘free round here at Augusta,' said Garcia afterwards. 'It was good to do that and I'm happy with it.
'It's very difficult when it's this gusty. It wasn't easy out there. It's hard to figure out the right clubs and you need to get a few breaks.'
Garcia has chalked up 22 top-10s in majors in his career, his best performance in this event being share of fourth spot in 2004
'I would love to, yes,' he said when asked if this could be his year. 'As I have been saying since the beginning of the year, I feel like my game is in pretty good shape, I feel like I'm hitting the ball nicely.
'Even though today wasn't maybe my best ball striking round, I still hit a lot of good shots.
'I just need to keep working hard on my short game and get more confidence in there and if I can manage to do that, then I should be able to do that.'
Three-time winner Phil Mickelson is hoping for more tough conditions today as he bids to emulate Jack Nicklaus by winning the Masters at the age of 46.
'Man, I love it,' said Mickelson of the first-day test at Augusta National, where he posted a one-under-par 71 to sit in a big group sharing fourth spot.
'I thought anything at par or better was going to be a great score and it is.
'If the conditions stay like this, you have got to think par first and then, if the birdie opportunities are there, then great.
'The wind is going to magnify your misses and a lot of the guys that aren't familiar with this course and where you can go to on certain holes for certain pins will miss in the wrong spot and end up making big numbers.
'Because I've played here so many times, i just kind of know where to go.
'I might miss it big, but I'll miss it in the right spot and I'll have a good chance to salvage par.'
Mickelson's opening effort was illuminated by an eagle-3 at the second, earning him the traditional prize for that feat of two crystal goblets.
'To get the round started like that was exciting,' said the 2013 Open and Scottish Open champion of holing a putt from more than 40 feet.
American Stewart Hagestad is the only player among five amateurs on course to make the cut in the Masters.
It followed the Californian carding a first-round 74, which left the US Mid-Amateur champion sitting in a share of 22nd spot heading into the second circuit.
Australian Brad Luck, the world No 1, had to settle for a 78, the same score carded by
American Brad Dalke.
Chilean Toto Gana, the Latin America title holder, looks set for an early exit after an 81, as does Amateur champion Scott Gregory after the Englishman started with a 7 then finished with a 6 in his 82.
Jamie McLeary leapt into contention at the PGA EuroPro Tour Qualifying School final after producing one of the best second-day efforts at Frilford Heath.
The Lothians-based player, who held a European Tour card last season, carded a 67 at the Oxfordshire venue for a five-under-par total.
He is sitting joint-third heading into today's final round, which sees German Hendrik Beins and Englishman Jamie Howarth share top spot on six-under.
McLeary was among just six Scots to be among the players sitting 80th and tied to make the 36-hole cut.
Alva amateur Lawrence Allan looks set to be embarking on a pro career after he made it through safely on 144 (71-73).
The other Scots to secure cards for the 2017 campaign on the third-tier circuit are Jordan McColl, Michael Stewart, Paul Robinson, and Fraser Moore.
Craig Lawrie, Paul's eldest son, missed the cut, as did Scottish PGA champion Gareth Wright.
West won the Uniroyal Trophy after beating their East counterparts 13-11 at Bruntsfield Links in the 71st match between the two Alliance rivals.
The visitors won the morning foursomes 5-3 before East fought back to level the scores at one point in the afternoon singles.
It all came down to last head-to-head encounter as it went to the 18th green, where Frank Drum (St Meddans) held on for a one-hole win over Prestonfield's Willie Laing.
Forfar amateur Liam Balneaves is the new Midland Golfers' Alliance champion.
The one-handicapper carded rounds of 71 and 73 at Arbroath Links for a four-over total, winninf by two shots from Glenrothes pro Craig Knowles (75-71) and Dunkeld and Birnam amateur Stuart Mckendrick (72-74).