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Rory justifies the faith of legend Gary Player in steady start to Slam quest

By Adam McKendry

With the backing of Jack Nicklaus on Wednesday and the ringing endorsement of Gary Player yesterday, Rory McIlroy strode out and proved he has Masters credentials at Augusta.

At times it wasn't pretty, at other times it looked like it was going to be yet another round of chances gone amiss for the World No.7, but at the end of the day, McIlroy can sit back and be fairly pleased with his day's work.

The Ulsterman shot an opening round 69 to finish on three under par, three shots adrift of the early pacesetter Jordan Spieth.

Backed by a stellar driving performance, all that the Holywood man had to do was play steady golf and let his putting do the rest - even if it was, as it has been and maybe always will be, a tad off colour.

And with some of golf's biggest names making him the man to beat ahead of the likes of Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, and a devoted fanbase cheering his every shot, there's a sense - and whisper it quietly - that the Grand Slam might be achieved this week.

McIlroy may not have known it but, speaking after hitting the opening tee shot of the tournament, golfing legend Gary Player name-checked him, and Swede Alex Noren, as his picks for the Green Jacket.

"We need Rory to join us in the Grand Slam," the South African had said while sitting alongside fellow honorary starter Jack Nicklaus. "I would pick Alex Noren and I would pick Rory McIlroy, if you're asking me to pick a winner this week."

The three-time Masters champion looked to be justified early, McIlroy seemingly easing those putting fears that persist every week by rattling in a birdie from 19 feet on the first to kick things off in as good a fashion as he could have hoped.

It wasn't a shock, the galleries expectedly flocking to catch a glimpse of the star attraction of the afternoon starters, with World No.3 Jon Rahm and former Masters champion Adam Scott.

Things, however, took something of a nosedive on the second - albeit not a significant one - as a par five went begging when his 10-footer for birdie slid by. Pars followed at the 3rd, 4th and 5th, with the latter a good confidence booster in making up and down from just off the back of the green, before two holes that threatened to derail the round.

First came the sixth, which should have yielded a second birdie to move him onto two-under following a magnificent tee shot that ended up on the back plateau just six feet from the pin. For all the promise that hole-out on the first provided, this one was painfully pushed right.

Still reeling from that, the first dropped shot came at the 7th as an underclub into the green saw McIlroy stuck in a sand trap short of the putting surface. The recovery was good, but not great, and the tricky putt downhill stayed above ground, again missing right.

A year ago, perhaps even a few months ago, that could have been enough to start the slide on what had been a round stacked with promise, another chance at establishing his Major platform down the drain.

Not now.

While he did get somewhat fortunate to have the par five 8th next up, the Ulsterman still had to do the business and, after leaving his second just short of the green, his short game skills came to the fore in an impressive up and down.

Notably, the chip on that occasion was good enough to avoid the putter being seriously tested, but nevertheless it was a return to the red for McIlroy, who turned in one under after a par at the 9th.

But yet again the flat iron proved the Holywood man's Achilles' heel as he saw another good look at birdie - this time an eight footer at the 10th - shave the edge of the hole and keep on going, as did a 35-footer on the 11th as he made the descent into Amen Corner.

While he may have been praying - pun intended - for three birdies, one would more than suffice, with too many players already caught out by the deceptive 12th and the stream just shy of the 13th green. The birdie came the tough way, and it was a hard-fought shot gained at the 13th thanks to a bunker save after he flew the green from all of 163 yards, the 10 foot putt he sunk rather surprisingly his saviour.

You could make a very strong case for that being the confidence booster he finished the round with and, after a 29-footer lipped the hole for birdie on the 14th, he played the 15th perfectly for a two-putt birdie.

But the 16th was the big one.

His tee shot was errant, finding the upper plateau of the green and leaving a near impossible two putt given the severe undulations of the famed par three. It looked like the momentum would halt abruptly.

But, despite having rolled his first putt eight feet by - a good effort under the circumstances - the return effort was straight and true into the centre of the cup. Even on a Thursday, those putts are the ones that matter.

McIlroy closed his round with two pars to finish on three under, a score which leaves him in a good position to hit the summit.

The Grand Slam dream is alive.

Meanwhile, Tiger Woods labelled his Masters return after an absence of two years as "awesome", but his performance fell well short of that lofty description. A number of wild drives meant Woods did well to be three over par after 12 holes and the 14-time major winner birdied the 14th and 16th to card a one-over par 73.

"It was interesting, an up-and-down day for me today," Woods said. "I had some opportunities to makes and didn't do it. I played the par fives very sloppily and that was the difference in the round."

Woods is contesting the year's opening major for the first time in three years after undergoing spinal fusion surgery in April last year and has finished 12th, second and fifth in his last three starts on the PGA Tour.

"It felt great to be back out there again," the 42-year-old added. "I only came up here the last couple of years just to have food [at the Champions Dinner]. It's nice that I came out to play and know that I had the golf course in front of me.

"The crowds have been incredible. It's been awesome, this entire comeback. I got a standing ovation on the range. Coming up to the first tee, the people come out of the clubhouse and the putting green, they're really into it."

Woods was in danger of playing himself out of the tournament when he bogeyed the 11th and found the water with his tee shot on the 12th, but crucially salvaged a bogey after a mediocre pitch.

"It was very important," he added. "I just didn't want to drop it to four (over). I figured I had two par fives ahead of me. We were anticipating getting it back to even par, just fighting our way back to even par. I could have easily let the round slip away from me, but I got it back. And I'm right back in this tournament. There's a lot of holes to be played. The weather is going to change. It will be fun the next 54 holes."

Asked to sum up his feelings at being back in the Masters, Woods said: "Awesome."

Birthday boy Henrik Stenson was content with his opening round of 69.

"I'm happy with that I think I played a well played round," he said. I feel like I left a few out there but I saved myself on a few occasions so I don't think I deserved any better."

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