- Associated Press - Thursday, April 7, 2011

AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - Rory McIlroy is contending again in a major championship, surging to an early lead at the Masters on Thursday.

The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland got rolling with three straight birdies, and he was at 6 under with four holes still to play on a warm, sunny day. That put him two shots ahead of two South Africans, Retief Goosen and Charl Schwartzel.

This is nothing new for McIlroy, one of the game’s most dynamic young players. Last year, he finished third at both the British Open _ shooting an opening-round 63 at St. Andrews _ and the PGA Championship. He also helped the Europeans reclaim the Ryder Cup.

Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champion, holed out an eagle at the first hole, but dropped back with consecutive bogeys in Amen Corner. Schwartzel also had an eagle at No. 8.

Trying to get his game in order, Tiger Woods made the turn with a 1-under 35, but slipped back to even with a three-putt bogey at No. 10.

Woods is in the midst of the longest winless streak of his career _ 20 tournament over 17 months _ but usually contends at Augusta National, where he’s captured four green jackets and finished fourth a year ago.

The top scores in the clubhouse were a pair of 3-under 69s, turned in by Ross Fisher and Brandt Snedeker. Defending champion Phil Mickelson had yet to tee off in the next-to-last group.

The day began shortly after sunrise with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer striking ceremonial tee shots, the traditional start to the year’s first major.

With the overnight chill still lingering, the 81-year-old Palmer hit a little fade that stayed in the fairway. The 71-year-old Nicklaus went next, ripping one right down the middle about 30 yards past his longtime rival.

“I guess it’s still kind of fun to lop it off the first tee and be part of a great event,” Nicklaus said. “People enjoy it. It’s Augusta’s way of honoring its past champions and people such as Arnold and myself. It’s really quite nice they allow us to do this.”

But most eyes figured to be on Woods and Mickelson. Together, they’ve combined to win seven green jackets, including six of the last 10.

That might be about their only similarity at the moment.

Mickelson is coming off a three-stroke win at Houston, his first triumph since last year’s Masters and a sign that his game is peaking at just the right time.

“I was able to kind of see the shot a little bit better and hold that picture in my mind throughout the swing and pull it off,” he said.

Woods, on the other hand, hasn’t won since a sex scandal ended his marriage and tarnished his image. He’s in the midst of another complex swing change, still searching for the dominance that used to make him an automatic favorite at every event he entered.

Story Continues →