Pádraig Harrington tried to sound upbeat about his chances of winning the Shell Houston Open and qualifying for the Masters. But while a 69 left him just four shots off the lead, like Rory McIlroy (70) he knows he must putt better.
"I played okay, I hit it quite well," he told PGATour.com. "I had lots of chances but dropping a shot at the end (9th) and maybe not birdying the second last hole was not a nice way to finish."
Tied for 38th after failing to birdie the par five eighth (his 17th) and then bogeying the par-three ninth, he's four shots behind co-leaders Bill Haas and Charley Hoffman in an event he must win to clinch a 15th consecutive Masters appearance at Augusta National next week.
"Overall I created plenty of chances and I'll be happy if I do that for the next three days and maybe hole a few more putts," he said after solid performance featuring six birdies and three bogeys, one of which was caused by a three putt at his 12th hole.
Asked to describe his season and the state of his game, he said: "The season has been poor, real poor. The game is fine but I am not scoring very well. I haven't been putting well. I am way down the list in putting and I have got to putt better."
On needing to win to qualify for the Masters, he said: "There is no point in me focussing on next week. I have just got to focus on playing as well as I can this week and hopefully with nine holes to go I will have a chance. And if I do have a chance, hopefully I am not thinking about next week. Hopefully I am in the moment and just playing my golf."
Asked if nothing changed for him this week, he said: "Look, it does change but you don't constantly try and change."
Rory McIlroy complained that the greens were not as fast as he had expected as he got to three under par twice in his round but stalled each time and ended up carding a 70 that left him right on the project cut line of two under.
"I left a lot of putts short,” said McIlroy, who averaged 307.5 yards off the tee and 78.6% accuracy from tee to green but had 31 putts. “The greens aren’t quite as fast as what we’re used to.”
Tweeting after his round he wrote:
Solid, if unspectacular start here in Houston. Really happy with my form from tee to green... Hole a few more putts and I'll be right there!— Rory Mcilroy (@McIlroyRory) April 3, 2014
Darren Clarke also had a poor day on the greens and had to settle for a three over 75, leaving him needing a 68 at worst to survive the cut before heading to Augusta National for his 500th European Tour appearance.
Meanwhile, one of McIlroy's playing parnters Dustin Johnson, a pre-Masters favourite, withdrew after an opening 80 and did not immediately give a reason.
He was nine over after making a bogey, two double bogeys and a quadruple bogey eight at the sixth. He then made four birdies in his next nine holes but bogeyed the 16th and double bogeyed the 18th.
As for the injured Phil Mickelson, he shot a four under 68, as PGA Tour.com's Sean Martin reported:
Phil Mickelson wondered whether he'd be able to play the Masters after pulling a muscle in the third round of last week's Valero Texas Open. Those concerns are gone after a first-round 68 on Thursday at the Shell Houston Open.
"I feel a lot better," Mickelson said. "I travel with a light therapy machine, and I got on it right away, and I think that made a world of difference as far as expediting the healing process to where it doesn't hurt anymore. It just feels sore like I was working out, as opposed to kind of a painful experience."
That light therapy machine has worked wonders before. Mickelson allowed Harrington to come to his hotel room in the evenings and use it on his injured wrist during the 2008 Open at Royal Birkdale. The Dubliner went on to win his second Claret Jug.