By the time Rory McIlroy arrived at the first tee on Thursday to begin pursuit of his elusive first green jacket, he already had spent a week trying to crack the code at Augusta National.
McIlroy described his tournament prep at one of golf’s great cathedrals before the patrons are permitted inside the gates as a spiritual place.
“It’s quiet. It’s serene,” he said. “It’s very similar to walking into an empty church. It’s just got that aura, that feel, and it’s a really nice place to be.”
The silence was broken Thursday morning with the opening tee shots by the honorary starters, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player.
McIlroy, playing alongside American Rickie Fowler and Australian Cameron Smith, got off to an inauspicious start to his 11th Masters by fanning his tee to the right into the pine trees and opening with a bogey.
It was an up and down round for McIlroy, the tournament favourite after winning last month at The Players Championship, who scattered five birdies among six bogeys and signed for a one-over par round of 73.
"I can accept some mistakes, but six bogeys on the scorecard is a little too many," McIlroy said.
I'm just going to need to tidy that up over the next few days.
On his putting woes, the Holywood star said: "I'm going to go to the putting green right now and try to figure this out."
Scoring was difficult on a day when conditions were ideal. The course played long and soft with hardly a trace of a breeze.
It was like playing in a dome and yet the lowest score returned was a 3-under 69 by the trio of South African Justin Harding, Australian Adam Scott and Spain’s Jon Rahm.
“I once heard Tiger say if you start under par at a major, take it,” Rahm said. “This was a lot more than I could have hoped for.”
McIlroy could have used something closer to his ‘A game,’ which has led to seven top-10 finishes this season.
After squandering a birdie opportunity at the par-5 second, McIlroy nearly drove the green at the third and pitched to 5 feet and made his first birdie of the day.
He was a yard away from being perfect at the par-3 sixth, but instead his ball trickled down the slope and off the green and he failed to get up and down.
McIlroy showcased his power off the tee at the par-5 eighth, unleashing a 332-yard over the bunkers on the right and nearly chipped in for eagle.
McIlroy tapped in and turned in even par.
There would be too many miscues for McIlroy on the second nine. He missed the green in regulation at both Nos. 10 and 11 - hitting only 11 of 18 greens on the day - and it led to back-to-back bogeys.
McIlroy bounced back by picking off birdies at the two par 5s - Nos. 13 and 15 - and rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt at the par-3 16th.
It was his third birdie in the span of four holes and took McIlroy into red figures for the first time on the day. But it didn’t last long.
McIlroy’s driver got him into trouble on the final two holes and his putter couldn’t bail him out.
He hit only seven fairways on Thursday, but more concerning was taking 32 putts. He missed a 7-foot par putt at 17 and a 5-foot par putt at 18.
It was reminiscent of his putting woes when he was eliminated by Tiger Woods at the WGC Dell Matchplay Championship.
“It’s like the forward press has gotten too big and he’s just not releasing the putter head – and every one of them is missing right,” TV analyst Gary Koch said.
If McIlroy is looking for a bright spot, it is that he avoided any big numbers. All he needs to do is tighten up his game off the tee and he should be able to climb up the leaderboard this afternoon.
Among the golfers he’ll have to chase is Tiger Woods, who is one stroke behind the leaders after shooting 2-under 70, marking his best start at the Masters since 2013.
Woods missed a few putts of his own, but he stole a stroke at 14, where he looked to be in jail only to escape and sink a lengthy birdie putt.
Overall, Woods said he was pleased with his start and noted this interesting tidbit.
“I’ve shot 70 in the first round the last four times I won the green jacket, so off to a solid start,” Woods said.
Defending champion Patrick Reed fired a 1-over 73. It was a tough day for Offaly’s Shane Lowry. One day after his ace in the Par-3 Contest, Lowry stumbled to a 6-over 78.
Scott, the 2013 Masters champion, called his 3-under 69, a great start on a tricky day.
“One of the things, generally in my career, I’m kind of a slow starter, certainly the last 10 years, I don’t jump out of the gates, it seems. So this felt like a great start for me.”
A great start, but still a long way to go for any of the leaders to start thinking about how they might look in a green jacket.