Boy wonder Rory McIlroy turned Augusta National into his personal playground to grab the Masters lead with a sensational seven under 65.
The 21-year old world No 9 fired seven birdies in what turned out to be the only bogey free round of a perfect day before he was joined in a share of the lead by Alvaro Quiros in the last group of the day, finishing the first round two strokes clear of Korean duo YE Yang and KJ Choi.
McIlroy has three top-3 finishes in majors to his name but while he is maturing in leaps and bounds with a club in his hands, he is still very much a kid at heart.
Chilling out with his friends Harry Diamond, Ricky McCormick and Mitchell Tweddie this week, he explained how a neighbour told them to stop making noise as they threw around an American football late into the evening on the eve of the season’s first major.
The quartet bought the ball on a visit to the mall (where they ran into Quiros) and immediately started flinging it around in the car park before taking the action to the road outside their rented house.
“I was actually told off by the lady living across the street; we were making a bit too much noise. Had to cut it short,” McIlroy said.
Asked if he could throw a spiral yet, McIlroy said: “Yeah, it’s the thumb down, isn’t it? I’m learning.”
He’s also learning quickly how to cope in majors and he plans to show that he’s learnt from last year’s Open at St Andrews - where he followed an opening 63 with a wind-blown 80 - by playing the patience game today.
“This felt pretty similar to my start at The Open, although the thing about the round at St Andrews last year was that nothing really started to happen until the back nine,” he said. “Today, I felt as if I built the foundation of the round on the front nine.
“It was a very solid round. I wouldn’t say it was as explosive or spectacular as the 63 at St Andrews but it was very solid from start to finish.
“And I’m very conscious that this is just the start. What unfolded at The Open will be a massive help to me. If I do find myself in trouble, I’m going to have to stick in there, grind it out - that’s something I feel I learned to do at St Andrews. Hopefully, I can go out and pick up where I left off.
“I feel as if I’m playing really well so, hopefully, the bad stuff doesn’t happen and I can go out and shoot another good score.”
He might have shot 65 but it could easily have been 64 or 63 so well did he hit the ball from tee to green.
Asked about missed birdie chances at the 13th, 16th and 18th, he said: “I felt as if I missed a short one on the 8th hole, as well, for birdie. Missed a short one on 10, as well.
“So I mean, I would take 65 all day long it. Could have been lower, but I also could have got a bad break here or there and I might not have been able to get to the green on 13 from the pine straw or something. It’s swings and roundabouts, and I’ll take 65 all day.”
McIlroy had never broken 70 in six competitive rounds at Augusta until yesterday and he made good on his pre-round plan to get off to a fast start when he raced to the turn in four under par 32.
But he didn’t hold back on the back nine either as he picked up further birdies at the 11th, 14th and 15th to grab the clubhouse lead. While he was caught by Quiros, he still replaced Seve as the youngest first round leader in Masters history and is on course to become the second youngest winner after Tiger Woods.
Taking advantage of perfect conditions on a still and sun-kissed Georgia morning, the Holywood star showed he has nerves of steel when he came through Amen Corner in one-under par.
At the 11th, he rifled a five iron to just 10 feet and holed the putt before chipping dead for par from the fringe of the 12th.
He drove into the trees at the 13th but while he found the green from the pine straw, he three putted from 60 feet, lipping out from nine feet for his birdie.
Disappointed to let that shot slide, McIlroy hit back with an eight footer for birdie at the 14th before two putting comfortably from around 45 feet for his seventh birdie of the day at the 15th.
He missed a gilt-edged, eight foot chance for another birdie at the 16th (pulling it horribly) and yet another from 10 feet at the last for what could have been a 64.
McIlroy’s fast start made a mockery of Butch Harmon’s claim that his short game is not good enough to win the Masters. It’s plenty good enough when the long game is going well but it remains to be seen if he can grind on a bad day.
Bunkered off the tee at the first, he blasted out 20 yards short of the green and then got up and down brilliantly by pitching to just two feet.
It wasn’t long before he hit the birdie trail, pitching to three feet the par-five second for his opening birdie of a memorable day.
He came close to holing out for an eagle two at the next where he used the slope to spin a low wedge back across the face of the hole before rolling home a four footer to get to two under.
The 240 yard fourth is one of the toughest holes on the front nine but McIlroy rifled a four-iron straight at the pin and holed an 18 footer up the hill to surge into second place.
He two putted for easy pars at the next two holes before surviving his only anxious moment of the front nine.
In the trees left of the seventh, he punched his approach into the front bunker and played a delicate splash shot to four feet below the hole and calmly slotted home the putt.
He should have birdied the 570 yard eighth after cracking two superb shots into the mouth of the green. But he overhit his pitch slightly and missed a four footer for his birdie.
He made amends in style at the ninth, using a three wood to place his ball perfectly on the flat on the right side before firing a towering approach to 10 feet and then draining the fast breaking left to right putt with surgical precision.
Aussie playing partner Jason Day was massively impressed by McIlroy’s course management.
Day said: “You can see how confident he is. He put himself in the right spots. This is his third time around Augusta and he knows where to go.
“Everything is good. He drives it unbelievable, hit his irons great and chips and putts good. That’s why he shot 7-under today. He left a lot out there – got to be two-to-four shots.”
Quiros made fun of McIlroy’s American football skills having watched the Ulster whizkid throw the ball around the car park in the mall on Wednesday.
“I was watching Rory play with a rugby ball with his friends in the middle of the parking. Did he tell you that?,” Quiros said. Told that McIlroy was proud of his skills, he’d beamed: “He was joking ‑‑ he was doing terrible.”
The Spaniard, who birdied three of the last five holes to beat his previous best round at Augusta by 10 shots, is a true breath of fresh air on the pro tour.
He birdied the 17th from 25 feet down the hill and then hit a nine iron to four feet at the last to tie for the lead.
But he refused to think about anything other than making the cut for the first time in his third appearance at Augusta.
“As I said, my target tomorrow is make the cut. It would be stupid to think about to shoot 65 again, because it’s not my way. As I said before, 75 was my best round here. It could be just one good round of golf. So to avoid that, I want to think in the next shot that I’m going to have, which is the tee shot on the first hole.”
Quiros has a new caddie on the bag this week in Robert Karlsson’s old bagman Gareth Lord.
Explaining the reason for the change in his inimitable way, Quiros said: “In soccer, when a team is playing bad, you cannot change the 22 players. The only thing that you can change is the coach, isn’t it? (Laughter)
“In my case, it’s the same. You know, I cannot change myself. Well, I’m trying to change myself but it doesn’t work.”
Matt Kuchar and Ricky Barnes are tied for fifth after four under 68s with Phil Mickelson forced to sign for a 70 after making his only bogey of the day at the 18th.
Tiger Woods failed to hole many putts in a 71, a familiar tale for the former world No 1 recently.