Augusta: Tiger Woods, straining to remain upbeat as he struggles to regain form, said he was pleased after posting a 71 that put him six strokes off the pace after Thursday`s opening round of the Masters.
"I`m right there in the ball game," said former world number one Woods, who has gone nearly 17 months without a win and is trying to get the hang of a new golf swing. "I`m only six back and we got a lot of golf ahead of us."
Leading the 99-man field was 21-year-old Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, who fired a seven-under-par 65 on a perfect spring day at Augusta National.
The enormous gallery following Woods, which included his mother, Kultida, had few chances to erupt in approval for the four-times champion.
Woods sank a bomb of a birdie putt at the 14th to cap three strong holes of highlights for the 35-year-old American, who insisted he was on the brink of finding his touch.
"I hit a lot of beautiful putts, a lot of beautiful putts," Woods said. "And they were just skirting the edge, so hopefully they will start going in."
As disappointing as Woods has been during the longest victory drought of his career, Augusta National could be the tonic for a revival.
A year ago, Woods tied for fourth in an impressive return at Augusta after competing for the first time in nearly five months following the shocking unraveling of his private life. In 15 PGA Tour starts since, he failed to finish any higher.
Struggles finding the fairway kept Woods from getting off to a good start as he parred both par-fives after driving into bunkers.
Two poor putts put Woods in a bind with back-to-back bogeys from the 10th. "A complete misread and bad speed," was how he described his par-putt at the 10th. On the next hole, he admitted: "I just pulled it. Pulled it. Bad putt."
Woods made amends by rolling in a testy, 12-foot downhill par-saving putt at the 12th that stopped the slide and saved him from making three bogeys in a row for the first time as a professional at the Masters dating back to 1997.
Never the most accurate driver of the golf ball, Woods`s return to the heights will likely be pegged to the reappearance of his magical short game and putting stroke.
"Most of the putts looked like they should have gone in," said Woods, who made a beeline for the driving range after the round. "I felt really good over the putts today and I hit a lot of good ones."
"I would rather be where Rory`s at," he admitted. "But, hey, it`s a long way to go. We have a long grind ahead of us."