Augusta - Tiger Woods opened his 19th Masters campaign with a confident
two-under 70 on Thursday as he sought to crown a remarkable return to the top
with a long-overdue 15th major title.
The 37-year-old American, who regained the world number one spot last month
after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, got off to a quiet enough start, but was
two under by the turn with birdies at six and eight.
Watched by the new love in his life, reigning Winter Olympic downhill
champion skier Lindsey Vonn, the 14-time major winner stayed there until the
par-five 13th, where he moved to three-under.
A bogey at the bunkerless 14th hole set him back, but he parred his way in
from there to tuck himself nicely in behind the leaders.
The early playing conditions in the 77th edition of the year's first major
were benign, with little wind, and that led to some fireworks from the early
None sparkled more than cricket-loving Australian Marc Leishman, who pounded
out four birdies in a row from the 13th to come in with a superb six-under 66.
"Got off to a shaky start - had a few nerves early on, but got that out
of the way with a birdie at three and then we were away," he said.
England's David Lynn had earlier fired a four-under par 68 to set the early
The 39-year-old, who finished runner-up to Rory McIlory in last year's PGA
Championship, got to five-under after 15 holes, but a bogey at 17 pegged him
US veteran Jim Furyk and 2007 Masters winner Zach Johnson both came in with
69s, with eight players - Kevin Na, David Toms, Brandt Snedeker and John Huh,
all of the United States; Tim Clark of South Africa, Englishmen Lee Westwood
and Justin Rose and KJ Choi of South Korea - all safely home at two-under 70.
But it was Woods that was once again the full focus of attention as a win on
Sunday would crown his return to the top after three years of turmoil and doubt
in his personal and professional life.
It would also leave him just three majors short of achieving his life-long
ambition of matching, and eventually surpassing, Jack Nicklaus' record of 18
major titles, the last of which came here in 1986 at the age of 46.
A visit to the Butler Cabin on Sunday would also make it five Green Jackets
for Woods - his last was in 2005 - just one behind the record six held by
The two other stories that have dominated the build-up to the opening round
have been firstly whether McIlroy has finally got to grips with his new clubs
and secondly how will 14-year-old Chinese prodigy Guan Tianlang fare on his
McIlroy, who finally showed a clear sign that he is emerging from his
four-month slump with a closing 66 for second place at the Texas Open last
week, started strongly and was two under through six holes.
But it remained to be seen whether he can safely negotiate four rounds over
a course that has hurt him badly before.
He has already set his sights high, saying that anything less than a win on
Sunday would be a disappointment in what he says is his favourite tournament of
Astonishingly, McIlroy, one of the youngest players in the 93-strong field,
is 10 years older than Guan, who became the youngest player in Masters history
when he set off on Thursday.
Short off the tee, the slightly built Chinese schoolboy had been expected to
struggle over the mighty 7,435-yard Georgia layout, but after a bogey at the
first he bounced back to birdie the third.
Bogeys at seven and nine, however, then pushed him out to two over.
Three-time winner Phil Mickelson was also among the late starters, meaning
he could run into the stormy weather which was forecast for later in the day.
The 42-year-old American birdied the second but was rocked with bogeys at
the third and fifth.
Spain's Sergio Garcia, meanwhile, caught the eye by moving to five under
through 10 holes.
Reigning champion Bubba Watson struggled throughout and was well down the
field on 75.