Augusta: Britain`s Rory McIlroy, widely tipped as a future world number one, produced golf as dazzling as the spring sunshine at Augusta National to charge into a share of the lead at the Masters on Thursday.
The Northern Irishman, who recorded top-three finishes in three of the last five majors, fired a flawless seven-under-par 65 to set the early pace before being caught late in the day by Spaniard Alvaro Quiros, who birdied the last two holes.
South Korean Yang Yong-eun, who became Asia`s first male major winner at the 2009 PGA Championship, finished bogey-bogey for a 67 to end a fascinating day of low-scoring level with compatriot K.J. Choi.
Americans Matt Kuchar and Ricky Barnes opened with 68s while four-times winner Tiger Woods, bidding for his first tournament win in almost 17 months, narrowly missed birdie putts on 15 and 16 before signing for a 71.
Defending champion Phil Mickelson, seeking his fourth Masters title, was three under playing the last before missing the green with his approach to record his only bogey of the round for a 70.
In perfect spring weather at Augusta National where birdsong echoed amid the pine trees, McIlroy birdied three of the first four holes and negotiated the tricky Amen Corner loop in one under before picking up further shots at 14 and 15.
"I drove the ball really good and when you drive it well, you have a chance to give yourself opportunities for birdies," the 21-year-old told reporters after his red-hot start to the season`s opening major.
"I hit my irons really good but I just stayed committed to the targets I was picking. I was playing smart and really just trying to leave myself in the best possible place. I did a good job of that today."
At last year`s British Open, McIlroy collapsed from a record 63 to a second-round 80 in brutal winds at St. Andrews but he felt he could only learn from that experience.
"Looking back on it, it was a very valuable lesson in my development as a golfer," he said. "I`ll be thinking about it and I`ll be thinking about how I can do things better tomorrow than I did that day in St. Andrews."
The long-hitting Quiros, who claims he has the hands of a bricklayer, was delighted with his round after enduring a relatively lean spell since clinching his fifth European Tour title at the Dubai Desert Classic in February.
"I`m very happy today," the 28-year-old said after holing birdie putts from 20 feet on 17 and four feet at the last. "You know, I`ve been struggling with my game for a long time."
"My target tomorrow is to make the cut. It would be stupid to think about shooting 65 again, because it`s not my way."
Woods, who has finished no worse than tied for sixth in his last six Masters appearances, made a reasonably confident start to reach the turn in one-under 35.
He sank a 14-footer to birdie the par-three sixth but then faltered at the 10th, where he missed a par putt from six feet, and also at the 11th, where he drove into pine trees.
Although he rebounded with birdies at 13 and 14, he failed to capitalise on further opportunities over the closing holes to end the day six strokes off the pace.
"I hit a lot of beautiful putts, a lot of beautiful putts," the 14-times major champion said. "And they were just skirting the edge, so hopefully they will start going in."
"I would rather be where Rory`s at but hey, it`s a long way to go. We have a long grind ahead of us. I`m very pleased. I`m right there in the ball game, I`m only six back."
Tournament favourite Mickelson, who teed off in the afternoon, was annoyed to bogey the par-four last after his approach ended up to the left of the green.
"I missed it in spots where I could get up and down in spots that I knew the chip," the four-times major winner said. "I had a good angle, and that`s why I was disappointed on 18."
"I didn`t shoot myself out of it but I didn`t make up ground on the field the way I wanted to, so I`ve got to go do it tomorrow."
Britain`s Ross Fisher, whose wife is expecting their second child early next week, opened with a 69 to finish level with six others, including Spaniard Sergio Garcia, Australian Geoff Ogilvy and 2008 champion Trevor Immelman of South Africa.
Among the other big names, Germany`s world number one and last year`s PGA Championship winner Martin Kaymer battled to a 78 while second-ranked Briton Lee Westwood carded a 72.