Rory McIlroy is relieved he won't have to chase hard from the off after he opened with his first sub-70 round since 2011 to keep leader Jordan Spieth in his sights at the Masters.
The Holywood talent was forced to dig deep for three late pars but the putter came to his rescue as he made an eight-footer at the 16th and a 13 footer at the 17th before chipping dead at the 18th to post a satisfying, three-under 69.
Spieth was threatening to open up a big lead on day one when he birdied five holes in a row from the 13th to get to seven under par as McIlroy hit three loose approach shots coming home.
But the American bogeyed the 18th for a six-under 66 and a two-shot lead over Tony Finau and Matt Kuchar, leaving McIlroy in a seven-way tie for fourth place with Henrik Stenson, Patrick Reed, Charley Hoffman, Adam Hadwin, Haotong Li and Rafa Cabrera Bello.
With the last 12 winners finishing the opening day inside the top 10, McIlroy was thrilled not to leave himself too far back on a course where pressing hard often leads to mistakes, especially on the tough front nine.
"It's a golf tournament where it is so hard to play catch up," McIlroy said on a day when Tiger Woods shot 73 and defending champion Sergio Garcia put five balls in the water at the 15th and made a 13 in an 81.
"You start chasing on this golf course and that is when you start to bring big numbers into play. So to shoot a real solid round like that today was very pleasing.
"I made the good par putts coming in and the bogey on seven but apart from that I birdied most of the holes I feel like I should birdie and held it together pretty well."
The last time McIlroy broke 70 on the opening day of the Masters he shot 65. But he was simply pleased that he remained patient all day — "I didn't press," he said — and posted a solid round that keeps his fourth attempt at completing the career Grand Slam very much alive.
After a birdie from nearly 20 feet at the first — his first at the opening hole in 35 rounds — he played well all day and felt his 69 was no more than he deserved.
While he bogeyed the seventh (bunkered) and missed birdie chances at the second (10ft), sixth (6ft), ninth (14ft) and 10th (8ft), he birdied the par-five eighth after a pitch to four feet, knocked in a 10 footer after a delicate bunker shot down the hill at the 13th and two-putted the 15th from long range before making three excellent par saves on the last three holes.
"I made one mistake, the bogey on 7. But apart from that, I missed a couple of birdie chances early on, and I just told myself to stay patient out there," he said. "I think anything around 60 out there is a pretty good score.
"Nobody is really getting away. Jordan had a pretty strong finish there. But this is my best start in a few years. And, yeah, it's such a hard golf course to play catch up on. If you start to chase it around here, that's when you start to make mistakes. But to be right up there and have the ability to stay patient, because of the position I'm in, that's a nice luxury I have over the next few days."
McIlroy felt the course played five or six shots harder than it did in practice last week such was the firmness of the greens.
Unlike other venues, where you can shrug off missed chances or the occasional bogey, he feels every shot is a prisoner at Augusta; every hole a mini tournament of its own.
"I don't know what the word is I’m looking for," he said. "But you feel like you need it a little bit more. That putt has to go in, rather than if it goes in, great, if it doesn't, I have a chance on the next one.
"I feel that's the way you have to play this place. It's just tick holes off as you go along, take your pars, whenever you get a birdie putt, try and hole it and move on. Stay patient. I feel getting off to a good start today will allow me to keep that mindset the next few days.
"It was a much different golf course today than what we've seen in practice. And the SubAir must have been running nearly all night last night. That's Augusta. That's what we sign up to whenever we come here. You know it's going to be firm and fast.
"And even talking to Harry out there, we played 54 holes Wednesday, Thursday last week, so just a week ago. And he said this place is at least five or six shots tougher today than it was when we played. And five shots, anyway. Five shots when we played Thursday last week.
"It's amazing what they can do in the space of a week here. And there's no rain forecast for tomorrow, so it will be one where you need to control your distance and be very aware on the greens."
While Finau led the strokes gained-putting statistics with +5.199 with Spieth fourth (3.699), McIlroy was 25th (+1.062).
The par saves at the 16th and 17th almost felt like birdies to McIlroy and he could not have asked for a better result when chipping from the swale left of the 18th
"The one on 16 and the one on 17, they were both big," he said of those putts. "And then the up‑and‑down at the last, as well. Those three holes. Big for momentum. I don't feel like I'm going out trying to get those two shots or whatever back tomorrow morning.
"I can just be relaxed going on to the first tee, not being too concerned about trying to get those birdies back. So, yeah, they were huge.
"It's not always the birdies that stick out in your mind. That downhill left‑to‑right that I had on 17 was nice to see that go in. But I drove it well. Everything was really solid. And if I can continue to play like that over the next three days I'll be pretty close."
Asked if he felt "something special" might be on the cards after such a positive start, he said: "I'm not going to get ahead of myself. I've shot countless rounds in the 60s around here in practice. It's just another one. I have to go about my business and do the same tomorrow."
Spieth has now led after nine of the 17 rounds he has played at Augusta National and this was another beauty.
He birdied the second and third, bogey the fifth and seventh to slip back to level par but then eagled the eighth from 14 feet and birdied the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th to move to seven under before being forced to get up and down from close to 40 yards for a bogey at the last having driven into trees left of the 18th.
“If I look back on my highlights for the day, I'd say I had three of them," Spieth said. "Two of them were bogeys and one was an eagle. My bogey save that I made on seven was a fantastic putt that kept it going, I saw a putt go in. It was a very difficult putt, and I could have dropped to over par, and it led to stepping on eight tee feeling regrouped.
“I hit two beautiful shots and made a three there, and then on 18 - unfortunately, I've had to do some interesting things on 18 in my career here. That was actually one of the more comfortable tee shots for me.
“I just wasn't very on it with the driver today, and I was playing a fade and just kind of got it there early. But it was a beautiful chip shot. I probably couldn't have gotten closer with a whole bucket of balls.”