Lowry shows mental toughness to track Spieth at Augusta

Shane Lowry showed his mental strength and his class when he fired a four under par 68 to fly the flag for Ireland in the Masters.

While the world regards Rory McIlroy to the leading candidate to become the first Irishman to don that famous green jacket, the loose limbed 29-year old from the midlands is cannot be ruled out after Thursday afternoon's imperious display.

As McIlroy lost focus near the end of a trying, windswept day, dropping shots at the 16th and 18th for a somewhat unsatisfactory 70, Lowry made five birdies in his first eight holes en route to a four under par effort that left him tied for second with Danny Lee on four under par, just two shots behind defending champion Jordan Spieth.

It could have been even better for Lowry, who led greens in regulation but missed five birdie chances inside 15 feet on the last five greens.

But after missing the cut by one stroke last year, the pride of Co Offaly was pleased to get off to a fast start in a major after what has been a slow start to his first season since winning the World Golf Championship Bridgestone Invitational in Akron last year.

Shane Lowry pours in a birdie putt in round one of the 2016 Masters

"It was a good day," Lowry said at the end of a day that saw eight Europeans finish in the top 12. "I hit a nice iron to the first, but it just ran off and I left myself like a 15‑footer for par (and holed it). That was kind of a nice way to start the day.  It’s almost nicer than chipping it stiff. 

"From there, I played great today.  Didn't miss many shots. Didn't miss my targets by much and managed to hole a few putts early doors.  

“Really feel like it could have been one or two better at the end, but, I'll take it." 

McIlroy was not quite as impressive but he showed plenty of patience as he made an eagle and four birdies in a two under par effort that could have been better but for bogeys at the fourth, 11th, 16th and 18th.

The three-putt at the 16th and the tired swing that led to a plugged approach to the last made the Holywood star angry as it gifted two shots to the impressive Spieth, whose 66 was one of two bogey free rounds alongside Danny Willett's 70.

Lowry's 68 featured one bogey but it was far more impressive than Willett's round and almost as good as Spieth's wonderful 66. 

The Texan birdied the third, sixth and eighth to turn in 33, then made an impressive birdie at the 10th and two more at the 13th and 18th for another hot start to the Masters.

The round one pin positions

Lowry never gave himself a chance to learn Augusta National last year as he drove the ball poorly and missed the cut by one after rounds of 75 and 72. But he took advantage of a missed cut in Houston last week to formulate a good game plan.

A 54 hole practice run — 18 holes on Saturday followed by nine holes on Sunday, Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday — gave him the knowledge he needed to set his targets. And he pulled it off in hugely impressive fashion.

Forced to hole a 12 footer for par at the first, he cruised to the turn in 31 like a runaway train as he combined lethal driving with his sublime short game skills.

He reeled off four birdies in a row from the second, getting up and down with his wedge at the second and third before following a 12 footer at the par-three fourth and a 17 footer at the tough fifth to go to four under par.

Confessing he’d love to win a Major, Lowry knows he has to be patient, adding: “It’s a big deal and it’s something that you want to do as a golfer. I couldn’t tell you what age I was when I started going, ‘I really want to win a major.’  Obviously I do. 

“There's not too many people who wouldn't want to win one. And it's nice seeing my name up there. But like I said, it's three rounds to go. It’s a long way to go yet, especially around this place.

“You're only ever a bad bounce away from a bit of a disaster, so you've just got to keep your head on.  

“You've just got to keep trying to hit good shots and hit towards your targets and hopefully make a few putts, and that's all I'm going to try and do."

Even tough he felt he was patient early on, McIlroy lost mental focus late in the day and was furious to bogey two of the last three holes.

Yes, he was  pleased with his second best opening round in the Masters but he knows he let a great chance to make a big statement.

Rory McIlroy leans left after leaking his approach into a bunker at the 18th. It plugged and he finished with a bogey

Rory said: “It was good. If someone had given me a 70 for the first day I probably would have taken it. The conditions were tough out there. They were tricky and it was tough to hole putts. 

"The par threes were tough but I played the par fives the way I wanted to. I was a little bit disappointed with the finish and the loose shot on 18.

"But I just need to go out there tomorrow and try and get those two shots back as quick as I can and then stick to my game plan which is to take advantage of the par fives.  If I can do that I won’t be too far away at the end of the week.

“It was one of my better starts at Augusta. I am in the top ten and as I said at the start of the week it’s important to make a good start. 

"It would have been nice to have been a couple of shots better but I think 70 in those conditions was pretty good. 

“I was a little angry coming off the 18th green but if I look back on it I hit some good shots, missed some opportunities and it could have been a bit better but I need to stay patient and realise that my score was good today and I am not too far behind the guys at the top of the leaderboard.”

Sharing a house with his father Brendan, his coach, a pal, his management, his fiancée Wendy and a personal chef, Lowry said he was in great form for his late tee time.

He said: "I felt great this morning.  Woke up, had some breakfast in the house.  I've got a bit of a crew over, so we just sat around and watched a bit of TV, watched a bit of golf and took it easy. Before I know it, or before I knew it, it was time to come to the course. 

A fist pump from Jordan Spieth after his birdie at the 18th. His 66 was his eighth sub par round in nine trips around Augusta National in the Masters — 71 70 70 72; 64 66 70 70; 66.

“I felt really relaxed, really comfortable, and I was really looking forward to getting out there all day.”

As for the wind, he laughed when asked the worst he’d ever experienced.

Beaming, he said: “I knew it was going to be tough. It was going to be tricky, but it’s not like I haven’t played in the wind before."

He added: "I hit some good shots.  I stroked the ball really solid today, which is what you need to do in the wind.  

"You know, I've always said, I like tough golf.  This is tough golf and it's going to be for the next three days.  So I’m looking forward to the challenge.”

Darren Clarke faces a battle to make the cut after a 76 that had moments of brilliance but while Graeme McDowell bogeyed the last for a battling 72 to share 21st with the likes of Phil Mickelson and Jason Day on level par, he was also pleased with his start, specially after going two over after 10 holes.

"I was thinking here we go again," McDowell said. "I was two over stranding on the 11th tee and at that point I would have snapped your hand off for level par. 

“I was actually a little disappointed to bogey the last but generally my attitude has been good this week and I am just trying to have some fun and enjoy this golf course. 

"Where else would you want to be from a golfing point of view? I managed to hit some nice shots and made a few putts so it was pretty good.

“The lads are doing well. It was great to see Shane up there on the board early doors and that kind of spurned me on a little bit and as I said I made some decent putts after that and hit enough good shot to have me really up for getting back out there tomorrow.” 

Spieth stole the show with his early 66 but Irish eyes were all on Lowry and McIlroy in the afternoon as they led a strong European charge.

After turning in five under, Lowry missed a 10 footer for birdie at the 11th and bogeying the 12th after overshooting the green.

But a two putt par at the 13th following a rare, pushed drive into the pine trees, he steadied the ship coming home and gave himself a handful of five chances on the last five holes to go event lower.

McIlroy went out in the worst of the wind but after following a nerve-settling birdie at the second with a soft bogey at the fourth, he hit huge drives downwind and birdied the seventh and ninth to dip into the red.

A bogey at the 11th was only a wobble and as Jason Day went 6-6 with bogey at the 15th and a triple bogey six at the 16th, ending the day tied with McDowell after72, McIlroy eagled the 13th from 17 feet to move to three under and into the top four.

A two putt birdie at the 15th put McIlroy at four under but he tugged his tee shot long at the 16th and three putted from 63 feet, missing a six foot return putt.

He almost three putted the 17th too but then bunkered his approach to the 18th, plugging it in the right top and failing with a 25 footer for par.