Augusta - Seventh-ranked Rory McIlroy, chasing his first Masters title and a career Grand Slam, salvaged pars on the last three holes for an opening-round three-under par 69 on Thursday at Augusta National.
The solid closing run left the 28-year-old from Northern Ireland in a fourth-place pack three strokes behind leader Jordan Spieth, matching his second-best effort in either of the first two rounds in his 10 Masters starts.
"To hole those putts coming in - I left myself in some tricky positions on 16, 17 and 18 - to walk away with three pars there, I'm really pleased with that," McIlroy said. "It's not always the birdies that stick out in your mind.
"Everything was really solid. And if I can continue to play like that over the next three days I'll be pretty close."
McIlroy's only better Masters start was his ill-fated 2011 run, when he fired a 65 to lead.
He led entering the final round but melted down with an 80 to squander a green jacket, only to then win his next major start at the 2011 US Open.
"Everything worked," said McIlroy, who has come up short in three prior attempts to complete the career Slam at the Masters. "I drove the ball well, I controlled the distances well with my irons. I made some clutch putts for par. Everything worked well."
After missing birdie chances early, McIlroy said he stressed being patient and was content with where he stood with 54 holes yet to play.
"Not anyone is really getting away," McIlroy said. "Jordan had a pretty strong finish there. But this is my best start in a few years. And 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.
"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 says being among the leaders brings a different mindset to missed opportunities under the mental pressure Augusta National brings.
"You can play more relaxed. You don't have to chase. You miss a couple of chances and there's just a different mindset. 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."
Patience has been a lesson well-learned for McIlroy, with top-10 showings in each of the past four years.
"That's the way you have to play this place," he said. "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.
"Getting off to a good start will allow me to keep that mindset the next few days."
Complete first-round scores on Thursday from the 82nd Masters at par-72 Augusta National Golf Club (a- denotes amateur):
66 - Jordan Spieth (USA)
68 - Tony Finau (USA), Matt Kuchar (USA)
- Adam Hadwin (CAN), Li Haotong (CHN), Henrik Stenson (SWE), Charley
Hoffman (USA), Patrick Reed (USA), Rory McIlroy (NIR), Rafael Cabrera
70 - Bernd Wiesberger (AUT), Zach Johnson (USA), Marc Leishman (AUS), Phil Mickelson (USA), Rickie Fowler (USA)
71 - Vijay Singh (FIJ), Satoshi Kodaira (JPN), Cameron Smith (AUS), Xander Schauffele (USA), Louis Oosthuizen (RSA)
72 - Francesco Molinari (ITA), Kyle Stanley (USA), Charl Schwartzel (RSA), a-Doug Ghim (USA), Fred Couples (USA), Kevin Kisner (USA) Tommy Fleetwood (ENG), Justin Rose (ENG)
- Ted Potter Jr. (USA), Brian Harman (USA), Daniel Berger (USA), Pat
Perez (USA), Jason Dufner (USA), Hideki Matsuyama (JPN), Branden Grace (RSA), Tiger Woods (USA), Bubba Watson (USA), Jimmy Walker (USA), Russell Henley (USA), Thomas Pieters (BEL), Dustin Johnson (USA)
- Austin Cook (USA), Wesley Bryan (USA), Ryan Moore (USA), Jose Maria
Olazabal (ESP), Bryson DeChambeau (USA), Paul Casey (ENG), Martin Kaymer
(GER), Justin Thomas (USA), Sandy Lyle (SCO), Ian Poulter (ENG),
Bernhard Langer (GER), Tyrrell Hatton (ENG), Alex Noren (SWE)
Jason Day (AUS), Kim Si-woo (KOR), Patrick Cantlay (USA), Matthew
Fitzpatrick (ENG), Danny Willett (ENG), Adam Scott (AUS), Jon Rahm (ESP)
- Angel Cabrera (ARG), Mike Weir (CAN), a-Joaquin Niemann (CHI), Yuta
Ikeda (JPN), Brendan Steele (USA), Patton Kizzire (USA), a-Doc Redman
(USA), Billy Horschel (USA), Chez Reavie (USA), Larry Mize (USA), Webb
77 - Shubhankar Sharma (IND), Dylan Frittelli (RSA), Kevin Chappell (USA), Jhonattan Vegas (VEN), Yusaku Miyazato (JPN)
78 - Trevor Immelman (RSA), Mark O'Meara (USA), Ross Fisher (ENG), Gary Woodland (USA)
79 - Lin Yuxin (CHN), Ian Woosnam (WAL), Kiradech Aphibarnrat (THA)
81 - Sergio Garcia (ESP), a-Matt Parziale (USA)
86 - a-Harry Ellis (ENG)