Rory McIlroy was delighted to be right in the mix at Augusta National after carding his best start in the Masters Tournament for seven years.
The Northern Irishman fired a brilliant opening 65 in 2011 but had not gone below 70 on day one at the year’s first Major Championship since, a trend he bucked on Thursday with a 69.
That left him alongside Henrik Stenson, Li Haotong and Rafa Cabrera Bello and three shots behind leader Jordan Spieth, but he could have been further adrift were it not for impressive pars saves on the 16th, 17th and 18th.
McIlroy had spoken coming into his fourth attempt at completing the career grand slam of the importance of putting down a marker, and he was pleased with his position heading into Friday.
“You look at it and not anyone is really getting away,” he said. “Jordan had a pretty strong finish there but this is my best start in a few years and it’s such a hard golf course to play catch up on.
“If you start to chase it around here, that’s when you start to make mistakes. But to be right up there and have the ability to stay patient because of the position I’m in, that’s a nice luxury I have over the next few days.
“It’s not always the birdies that stick out in your mind. That downhill left‑to‑right that I had on 17, it was nice to see that go in.
“I drove it well, everything was really solid and if I can continue to play like that over the next three days, I’ll be pretty close.”
Swede Stenson has a Claret Jug and top fives at the US Open and US PGA Championship but has never made the top ten at Augusta and his 69 was his best opening round here by two shots.
That meant he was pleased with his day’s work, although he did not feel he was at his best.
If I can continue to play like that over the next three days, I’ll be pretty close – Rory McIlroy
“I think I managed my way around the golf course pretty well today,” he said. “I didn’t feel like I played my best, I didn’t have good enough stuff out there. I hit some little chips and came up pretty good on the greens and made a couple of nice putts for birdie on the fourth and the 11th.
“Any time you shoot in the 60s on this course on a good condition day, you’ve got to be pleased with that.”
Li was making his Masters debut and hoping to follow in the footsteps of Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia, who both won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic before going on to win the Green Jacket in the last two seasons.
The Chinese led on the back nine before dropping a shot on the last and Spieth’s late surge, and he admitted it was an incredible feeling to be competing in an event he used to watch in the middle of the night on television.
“Since the very beginning, I just watched on TV all the time,” he said. “Never miss once on TV for the Masters. It’s quite unreal for myself and to be here, play golf here, it’s such a big honour.
“My first round was quite solid and I made a lot of putts. I thought I was going to be nervous on the first tee, it was all right. So I’m just quite happy to have such a great opening round.”
Cabrera Bello was three over after five holes before charging through the field and was pleased with how he kept working after a disappointing start.
“It was a rough start,” he said. “Unfortunately I had a four-putt on five for a double. But fortunately or unfortunately, however you want to see it, it wasn’t the first time that I had three‑putted from three feet here at Augusta. So I told myself that putt could happen to anyone.
“I hadn’t really been playing badly the first few holes. The scoring was a bit unlucky. Just hang in there, grind through the round, there will be some birdie opportunities.”