McIlroy off to another strong start at Masters

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AUGUSTA, Ga. | Rory McIlroy has another early lead at a major championship.

Now, he’s got to avoid another meltdown.

One of golf’s brightest young stars, the 21-year-old McIlroy surged to the top of the Masters with a 7-under 65 on Thursday. He was in the clubhouse two shots clear of the field, poised to become the youngest first-round leader in Masters history.

Former PGA champion Y.E. Yang made a run at McIlroy before closing with back-to-back bogeys, settling for a 67. Long-hitting Alvaro Quiros also challenged, getting to 5 under with two holes to play.

McIlroy nearly duplicated his dynamic start at last year’s British Open, where he started off with a 63. The next day at St. Andrews, in a howling wind that actually forced a brief delay, he slumped to an 80.

He shouldn’t face those conditions in Georgia, where the forecast calls for warm, sunny weather through the weekend. Whatever happens, he feels better prepared to deal with any adversity.

“At the time, it was very disappointing,” McIlroy said, referring to his second-round collapse at St. Andrews. “But looking back, it was probably very valuable in my progression as a golfer.”

He rallied to finish third in the British Open, though far behind winner Louis Oosthuizen, and was third at the PGA Championship. Throw in his performance at the Ryder Cup, where he helped Europe reclaim the trophy from the U.S., and it’s easy to understand why the young man from Northern Ireland is considered a star-in-the-making.

He sure had it going at Augusta National, taking advantage of nearly perfect conditions for scoring: a clear day with only the slightest breeze. McIlroy started rolling at the par-5 second with the first of three straight birdies, and kept it going through a bogey-free round.

“I trusted everything,” he said. “I trusted where I wanted to hit the ball. That’s the key around here. With some of these pins, you can get tentative and try to guide it in there. You just have to pick your targets and trust your swing. I was very happy with the way I did that.”

McIlroy doesn’t expect to fall apart on Friday.

“I have that experience to draw on,” he said, “especially being in a similar position to last year at St. Andrews. I feel like I’m better prepared to tee off in the second round of a major with the lead.”

Tiger Woods wasn’t anywhere near the lead, but at least he wasn’t totally out of it. Mired in the longest winless streak of his career, he made a long putt at No. 14, lipped out several others and finished with a 71.

He considered it a promising start.

“I’d rather be where Rory is,” Woods said, glancing at the scoreboard from behind the 18th green. “But, hey, there’s a long way to go. We’ve got a long grind ahead of us. … I’m very pleased. I’m right there in the ballgame. I’m only six back.”

While Woods has gone 20 tournaments over 17 months without a win, he’s always a contender at Augusta National, where he’s captured four green jackets and finished fourth a year ago.

Defending champion Phil Mickelson teed off in the next-to-last group and pushed his opening tee shot into the trees left of the fairway. He scrambled to save the first of seven straight pars, before a birdie at No. 8 pushed him into the red for the first time.

Mickelson drove under an azalea bush at the 13th and had to scramble for a par. But he birdied the next two holes to push his score to 3 under — a solid start to his bid for a fourth green jacket.

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

Yang made an eagle at the 13th and briefly pulled into a tie for the lead with consecutive birdies on 15 and 16. But a wild drive behind the trees led to a bogey at the 17th, and he made another at the final hole after knocking his approach shot over the green and failing to pull off a tricky up and down.

There were plenty of red numbers on the board.

Matt Kuchar and Ricky Barnes shot 68, and K.J. Choi went to the 18th at 4 under. Five other players were in at 69: Sergio Garcia, Charl Schwartzel, Brandt Snedeker, Ross Fisher and 2008 Masters champion Trevor Immelman.

Two-time U.S. Open winner Retief Goosen had the early lead after holing out an eagle from the fairway on the first hole. But the South African limped to the finish with three straight bogeys for a 70 that felt much worse.

For the first time since 1999, Woods wasn’t the Augusta favorite. Mickelson is the bookmakers’ choice at 13-2, while his longtime rival is the second pick at 10-1.

PGA champion Martin Kaymer came in as the world’s top-ranked player, but he’s never made it to the weekend at Augusta. Looks like the German will be going home early for the fourth year in a row, opening with a dismal 78 — his worst score yet in the Masters.

“For me, it was very difficult,” Kaymer said. “There’s some golf courses that suit you and some, they just don’t.”

Lee Westwood is a former No. 1 in the second spot behind Kaymer. The Englishman is regarded as the best player never to win a major, an unwanted distinction he’d sure like to erase from his record. He has some work to do, too, bogeying the final hole for a 72.

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