McIlroy off to another strong start at Masters

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AUGUSTA, GA. (AP) - 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.”

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