Rory McIlroy plotted like a conspirator to avoid disaster and keep his Masters hopes alive after being intimidated by Augusta National for much of a tentative opening round.
The pride of Co Down overcame some moments of doubt, navigating his way gingerly through the Cathedral of Pines to post a one under par 71 in his first bid to complete the career Grand Slam.
On a day when he chunked two chips and hit more than his share of tentative shots, the title favourite came back from one over after 11 holes to birdie the last two par-fives on the back nine and show that he is not in any doubt about what he is trying to achieve on Augusta’s iconic three-shot holes.
“I haven’t put too much pressure on myself,” McIlroy insisted. "I obviously know what I can achieve this week but I’m not letting myself think about it too much. I’m just trying to play it one round at a time and today was a pretty good day.
“I feel like I can do better but I’m happy after day one and I’ll go out and try and do a little bit better tomorrow."
Having given eight shots to defending champion Bubba Watson on those holes 12 months ago — a travesty given his driving prowess — McIlroy knows he should be playing them in at least eight under par for the week.
And he’s on pace to do that now having followed pars at the second and eighth with birdies at the 13th and 15th in a workmanlike performance. If only he’d been a little more consistent on the others.
“I just kept telling myself to be patient out there today,” McIlroy said at the finish. “It was a tricky day; the wind was swirling a little bit, the pin positions were tough.
"Anything under par was a pretty good score. It was nice to pick off a couple of birdies on the back nine on the par fives and I’m pretty satisfied with the day’s work”
Given that he started by crushing a 324-yard drive down the first only to fluff his lines by missing a birdie opportunity from 10 feet, McIlroy did well in the end to remain at level par through the first few holes.
A wild pull at the par-five second ended up in a stream and after taking a penalty drop and a scuttling a recovery back into play, he did brilliantly to get up and down for par by screwing a 132-yard wedge back to four feet.
Still, there were signs that all was not well and when he left himself just 33 yards to the pin at the short, par-four third, there was a sigh of relief as he followed a duffed pitch with a deft chip to four feet and saved par.
The inevitable bogey finally arrived when he came up short at the par-three sixth and duffed another chip.
But while he was clearly not firing on all cylinders after that, he kept his patience and his head, just as Darren Clarke had to shoot a 74.
A brilliant drive set up a three at the seventh and even though he failed to birdie the eighth, where Phil Mickelson hit a fairway wood to 12 inches to set up an eagle three, McIlroy drained a slippery 10 footer for par after spinning a wedge off the green at the ninth.
A bogey at the 11th, where his testing chip to a dangerous pin came up 18 feet short, was followed by a missed birdie chance at the 13th. But just when it looked as if it would all go pear-shaped, he two putted the 13th for birdie.
Back to level, he then made a 20 footer down the hill for birdie at the 15th having decided that discretion was the better par of valour and opted to chip away from the flag rather than going straight over the right hand trap.
“It could have been a round that got away from me,” McIlroy added. "I bogeyed 11 but again I stayed patient, realising it’s a 72-hole golf tournament and I don’t need to press too much. That’s what I did and it was good to get into red numbers after day one.
“I feel the way I’m driving the ball if I can keep doing that and just be a little more efficient with my iron play and give myself more opportunities I’ll hopefully be right there at the end of the week."
As for the par-fives, he said: “I was more conservative in the par fives and on the first one I hit it into the hard so that wasn’t what the plan was. Btu I made a great plan there and got out of position on the eighth and took my medicine and made par there. Then I birdied the two on the back nine and a couple under for the par fives today isn’t so bad.”
A two over 74 for Darren Clarke wasn’t too bad either considering he made two double bogeys in his first seven holes.
That he too kept his cool was only mildly surprising to those who’ve been close to him since he was aware the Ryder Cup captaincy.
Seasoned observers of the Dungannon have remarked in recent weeks on his transformation from half-man half-volcano into international man of diplomacy.
But despite all that, there’s still a competitor fighting to get out.
“At the end of the day I still want to compete myself,” Clarke said after a 74 that could have been two shots lower — or higher. “Never mind the Ryder Cup captaincy. I want to go out and do as well as I can.”
The two double bogeys on the front nine, not to mention three three-putts overall, took a huge amount of the gloss off what was still a polished performance from a 46-year old in his 13th Masters.
And he maintained his jovial mood all the way around, even when he hit a couple of shots into places that made it impossible to save par, or even bogey.
“You’d think that I’ve been here enough times to know where I should miss it and I were I shouldn’t miss it,” Clarke said as he describe the doubles at the fifth and seventh, where he missed both greens to the right and three putted for sixes.
“And the two that I did miss, the best I could have done was get it to 30 feet and I couldn’t even manage to do that and then two three putts to follow them up.
“It’s just that having been here as many times as I have, to go and make the couple of mistakes that I have. Walking up there, I know they are dead.”
There was no sign of giving up though. And even when his caddie hung his head as Clarke’s’ drive at the eighth exploded into the face of a fairway trap like an errant mortar, he made par and turned in 39 before coming home in a respectable one under 35.
Yes, the three-putted the par-five 13th for par after two great shots. But he made birdie at the 15th and holed a brace of seven footers on the last two greens.
“And all in all, two over is not bad,” he said. “Not what I wanted, but not bad.”
Augusta National still woos him and makes him want to stand up straighter and play better. It even makes his nerve-ends tingle a little.
“If you are not a little bit nervous standing on the first tee in the Masters at Augusta National, there is something wrong.”