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McIlroy off to solid start at Masters, keeps Slam in sight

Rory McIlroy, of Northern Ireland, hits from a bunker on the 17th hole during the first round at the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 5, 2018, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David Goldman)

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Rory McIlroy wanted to get off to a solid start at the Masters, his latest shot at a career Grand Slam.

Saving par on the final three holes in the opening round Thursday helped him keep it in sight.

McIlroy shot a 3-under 69, breaking 70 in the first round at Augusta National for the first time since 2011. He shot a 65 that year and looked like he would win a green jacket before a final-round meltdown.

McIlroy heads into the second round Friday three shots behind Jordan Spieth, who made five consecutive birdies on the back nine to build a two-stroke lead over Tony Finau and Matt Kuchar.

"You look at it and 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, yeah, 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.

"But 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."

He can thank a few timely shots down the stretch.

McIlroy sank an 8-footer for par at No. 16, holed a sweeping, downhill, 13-footer for par on the next green and then chipped to a couple feet to save another par on 18.

"It's not always the birdies that stick out in your mind," McIlroy said, calling those shots the highlights of his round. "Those three holes. Big for momentum. I don't feel like I'm going out trying to get those two shots or whatever back (Friday) morning. I can just be relaxed going on to the first tee, not being too concerned about trying to get those birdies back. So, yeah, they were huge."

The first time McIlroy had a chance for the Grand Slam at the Masters, he opened 71-71 and found himself 12 shots back because Spieth ran away with it.

"Obviously it was very benign for us coming in the last few holes," McIlroy said. "I'm not surprised about (Spieth) at all. He loves this golf course. He plays well around here. He always has. And he's going to be tough to beat this week."

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Some other things to know heading into the second round of golf's first major:

TIGER TALES: Tiger Woods' first Masters appearance since 2015 was a bit of a letdown — he shot a 73, leaving him seven shots off the lead — but the four-time Augusta champion insisted that he's still in the game.

Woods was encouraged by two birdies coming down the stretch.

"I could have easily let the round slip away from me, but I got it back," he said. "And I'm right back in this tournament."

Well, not exactly.

Only two players have come back from seven shots behind after the opening round to capture the green jacket. But one of them is Woods, who rallied from that daunting deficit to beat Chris DiMarco in a playoff for his last Masters title in 2005.

"I fought hard to get back in there, and I'm back in this championship," Woods insisted. "There's a lot of holes to be played."

TOUGH TONY: Tony Finau may not win the green jacket, but there's no doubt he deserves some sort of award for being the toughest guy on the course.

One day after dislocating his left ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one during the Par 3 Contest — he literally popped it back into place right in the middle of the course — Finau was only two shots off the lead after shooting a 68 in his Masters debut.

"I look at myself as a mentally tough person, and I think I showed that today in my round, just able to put my head down and just play," he said.

Now, it will be interesting to see how the ankle reacts after walking 18 holes in a round that took more than five hours to complete.

"Hopefully I can get some better rest tonight and elevate, ice, have fluid and hopefully feel better," Finau said.

SERGIO'S DEBACLE: For the second straight year, it looks like the defending champion will have nothing to do this weekend except hand out the green jacket to someone else.

Sergio Garcia's hopes of a second straight title went up in smoke — really more like down the slope — at the 15th hole.

The Spaniard had five shots roll into the water at the par-3 hole, leading to a 13 that matched the highest score in Masters history. He finished with an 81, which was the worst score ever for a defending champ at Augusta National.

"I felt like the ball was going to stop," Garcia said. "Unfortunately, for whatever reason, it didn't want to."

BIG NAMES: Phil Mickelson lamented a "terrible putt" on No. 18 that could have salvaged a better opening round. Lefty finished 2 under, the best score among a host of big names and pre-Masters favorites chasing Spieth.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson was 1 over, one shot better than Justin Thomas and two ahead of Jason Day.

Rickie Fowler was 2 under, and Justin Rose was at even-par.

"I didn't capitalize on some putts that I've been making," Mickelson said. "But what I did do well is I plotted my way around the golf course. I got in a reasonable score."

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