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The Masters: Rory McIlroy having a real ball

By Karl MacGinty

Rory McIlroy produced a Masterful performance at Augusta National yesterday, reminiscent of Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods at their finest, as he eased himself into the clubhouse lead with a phenomenal, bogey-free 65.

As Tiger struggles manfully to rebuild his swing and restore his shattered reputation, McIlroy, 21, lit up the most fabled arena in golf with a display of youthful exuberance not seen at the Masters since 1997, when the 21-year-old Woods made his Major Championship breakthrough.

Just a few hours away from becoming the youngest first round leader in Masters history, McIlroy showed the class, self-assurance and polish one might expect of an older man. So it was charming to hear him tell afterwards of the late night football game on the road outside his lodgings in Augusta that left him in hot water with the neighbours.

Relaxed in the company of close friends from home, Harry Diamond, Mitchel Tweedy and Ricky McCormack, McIlroy and the lads went outside in Augusta on Wednesday evening to throw an American football around.

Yet the woman across the street took exception to the noise, telling them off in no uncertain terms, so McIlroy and his mates sheepishly went back indoors.

There was nothing sheepish about McIlroy's round which left the youngster three strokes ahead of Matt Kuchar, Sergio Garcia and Charl Schwartzel.

McIlroy has learned from painful experience at The Open last July, when he equalled the lowest round at the Majors with a 63 on Thursday, followed by a storm-tossed 80 on Friday.

“Today was a very sold round. It maybe wasn't as explosive or spectacular as the 63 at St Andrews but was more solid from start to finish,” he said.

“I think what happened at The Open last year will be a massive help to me. Looking back, it was a very valuable lesson.”

If Augusta National was McIlroy's playground yesterday, it was agony for Padraig Harrington as he battled manfully with a neck injury sustained as he swung his club left-handed in his early-morning warm-up on the range.

“I was advised to pull out but I wouldn't,” Harrington confessed after signing for a 77, his equal-worst round at Augusta.

“That's my nature, I'll always have a go, especially when it's the Masters. Yet it wasn't much fun.

“I'd been very happy with my preparations, so it's disappointing not to get a chance.”

The first round wasn't much fun for US Open Champion Graeme McDowell as he struggled to find his touch during a first round 74 which included a three-putt double-bogey six at 10.

McDowell's playing companion, Woods, recovered after some distinctly wayward shooting to shoot a two-under par 70.

If Tiger's golf was untidy, McIlroy's was close to perfection.

He revelled in the company of two other youngsters yesterday, Rickie Fowler, 22, and Aussie Jason Day, 23, both debutants.

Third at St Andrews last summer after a fighting weekend finish and third once again in the US PGA at Whistling Straits, it's clear the steep learning curve McIlroy has been riding at the Majors will soon take him to victory.

Pointing to the two victories McIlroy has to show from 43 months as a professional, some suggest his short game is not yet good enough for him to win The Masters, most recently Butch Harmon who had to eat humble pie at Augusta National last night.

For sure, McIlroy has had a tendency to miss the occasional short putt in telling situations and he let a couple of birdie chances go a-begging on the par five eighth, the par five 13th and the tricky short 16th.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with McIlroy's short game or his putting stroke when all is going as smoothly as it did that famous weekend at Quail Hollow last June or at Augusta National yesterday.

No, the only fault discernible in McIlroy's make up is a tendency for his shoulders to slump and confidence drain away a little too quickly under adversity, perhaps the only concession the youngster makes to his tender years.

Eventually, McIlroy will learn to grind, though it was difficult to imagine him ever needing to do so as he walked the most famous fairways in golf with the swagger of a champion.

Not that he had it all his own way. McIlroy's opening tee shot landed in the right fairway bunker at the first, a sand trap so deep, the top of his black baseball cap could barely be seen over its lip.

McIlroy had little option but to lay-up short of the green and then chipped and putted deftly for his par. What was that about his short game, Butch?

Earlier this week, McIlroy had spoken of the importance of building a good foundation on the front nine and he delivered on that count as he passed through the turn in a faultless four-under 32.

McIlroy argues that the most important thing he learned in his first two US Masters is where to miss and he underscored that point when he played two fine shots just short of the green at the par five second, leaving himself a chip and putt for birdie.

Two more birdies followed at the short par four third, where he pitched and putted with ease from 60 yards, and the daunting 238 yards par three fourth, courtesy of a lovely 4-iron tee shot and a deft 18 foot putt.

Another sweet birdie at nine was followed by a cracker at 11, holing out after hitting his 5-iron to seven feet.

He reduced 14 to a driver and wedge to four feet at 14 and needed just a driver and six-iron to set himself up for a two-putt birdie at the 530 yards 15th.

“And that was it,” he said. “Sounds simple but it wasn't.”

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