McIlroy in familiar territory after 65 at Augusta

Rory McIlroy, seen here on No. 17, shot 65 to take the early first-round lead at the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – The last time Rory McIlroy held the first-round lead at a major championship, he was greeted the following day by high winds and severe weather. On Friday at Augusta National, he’ll likely play in weather suited for shirt sleeves and sundresses.

McIlroy went 63-80 at last year’s British Open at St. Andrews. It was blowing so hard that his round was interrupted by a wind delay. He’ll have much better luck Friday when he tries to follow his first-round 65 at Augusta National.

McIlroy finished third at St. Andrews, the third time he’s finished third in nine major-championship appearances. Instead of the Claret Jug, he left St. Andrews having learned some valuable lessons.

“I’ll be thinking about it and I’ll be thinking about how I can do things better tomorrow than I did that day,” he said. “So if I do find myself in a bit of trouble, I’m going to have to stick in there, grind it out, and that’s something that I feel as if I learned to do at St. Andrews.”

Six of his seven birdies Thursday came on putts shorter than 10 feet. He got up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 second, wedged to 3 feet on No. 3, then hit 4-iron to 20 feet for birdie on the 240-yard, par-3 fourth hole. McIlroy made the turn in 32 after hitting 7-iron to 10 feet on the ninth hole.

He birdied the 505-yard, par-4 11th – the most difficult hole on the course – after hitting 5-iron to 8 feet. He hit wedge to 4 feet for birdie on No. 14, then reached the par-5 15th in two shots with a 6-iron for his final birdie of the day.

McIlroy, 21, was grouped with fellow youngsters Rickie Fowler and Jason Day on Thursday. Fowler, 22, shot 70, while Day, 23, shot 72.

“I knew it was going to be a good group for us,” McIlroy said. Between shots, the kids discussed cars, boats, “anything but golf, really,” he said.

McIlroy seemed comfortable in the pairing with his peers. He reached 7 under Thursday with a birdie at the par-5 15th, giving him a chance to break the course record of 63 if he birdied the final three holes. He parred in for his lowest round at Augusta National by five strokes. McIlroy has played two previous Masters. He was 20th in 2009, then shot 74-77 to miss the cut last year.

Weather was perfect, sunny and in the 70s, on Thursday. The storm that knocked down a tree on Magnolia Lane is a distant memory. Augusta National’s fairways ran fast, but its greens were fairly receptive. More of the same is expected Friday.

“It doesn’t get any easier than this,” said Dustin Johnson, who shot 74.

McIlroy spent the 10 days preceding Masters week working with his coach, Michael Bannon, at Old Palm Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Fla. He said he’s been spending more time in the gym, which has helped him with the back problems that hampered him at times last year.

“If I’m not in the range or the gym, I don’t know where I am,” he said. On Thursday, he could be found atop the Masters leaderboard. How long he’ll stay there remains to be seen.

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