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Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

AUGUSTA -- A year ago, the opening round of the Masters seemed like Old Timers Day after five players age 50 or older broke par, and two were within a shot of the lead.

However, youth was served in Thursday's first round of the 2011 tournament in the form of 21-year-old Rory McIlroy.

The native of Northern Ireland fired a 7-under par-65 to take the early lead into today's second round at Augusta National.

Then late in the day, another Twenty-something -- 28 year old Alvaro Quiros of Spain -- got hot on the back nine, connecting four birdies on four of the last six holes to match McIlroy's 65 and share a two-stroke lead over a pair of Koreans, Y.E. Yang and K.J. Choi, each of whom sit at 5-under.

McIlroy's feat is not quite as precocious as his youth would suggest.

"This is my ninth major," McIlroy said. "I've played a Ryder cup and I've had three top threes in majors. I'm still relatively inexperienced, but I feel as if I'm a pretty quick learner."

Indeed, McIlroy charged out of an early tee time to birdie three straight holes after making a par at No. 1.

Another stretch of three birdies in five holes at 11, 14 and 15 gave him a solid cushion and allowed him to cruise in with his 65.

Several players with later tee times made a run toward McIlroy's score, with the most serious one coming from Quiros, who has never made the cut in two previous Masters appearances.

In fact, he bested his lowest previous single-round score by 10 strokes Thursday.

He did it by using a little imagery while playing out of the final group of the day with Gary Woodland and Venezuela's Jhonattan Vegas.

"I was talking with my caddy about walking the 18 holes just like I was playing Sunday afternoon in the leading group," Quiros said with a laugh. "It was a nice feeling because normally, I've been watching this on TV.

"Finally, I played well."

Yang and Choi also made late runs at the leaders, with Yang actually tying for the lead at 7-under after a birdie at 16, only to fall back by bogeying the final two holes, while Choi birdied 17 and 18 to pull into a tie with his countryman.

There are also a lot of familiar names lurking well within striking distance after Round 1, including defending champion Phil Mickelson, who got as close as four shots back at 3-under before a bogey at 18 left him at 2-under.

Mickelson, coming off a win at Houston and playing in the next-to-last group, pushed his opening tee shot into the trees left of the fairway. He scrambled to save the first of seven straight pars, a sign of things to come.

Lefty drove under an azalea bush at the 13th and had to work hard to make par. He finally stumbled at the 18th, failing to get down from behind the green for his lone bogey of the day, pushing his score out of the 60s.

He headed straight to the practice range to work on his balky swing before sundown.

"It was just OK," Lefty said. "I didn't shoot myself out of it. But I didn't make up ground on the field like I wanted to. So I've got to go do it (today)."

Then there is former Georgia Tech standout Matt Kuchar, who is just three shots off the lead at 4-under 68, along with Ricky Barnes.

"I felt solid out there," Kuchar said. "I didn't feel like I was doing a whole lot of grinding. It felt like a lot of good opportunities.

"I'm really pleased with where I finished. It's a great spot."

Sergio Garcia leads a group of six different players four shots back at 3-under, while a pair of local favorites finished strong.

Former Georgia Tech star and Duluth resident Stewart Cink recovered from a stretch of three straight bogeys at 9, 10 and 11 with three birdies over the final seven holes to finish at 1-under 71.

"It was a good time to dig deep and just kind of battle away and come home with a decent score," said Cink, who is in a group of seven players tied at 1-under that includes four-time champion Tiger Woods, 2009 champion Angel Cabrera and 1992 champion Fred Couples. "It could've been 74 or 75 (Thursday)."

The same is true for former Georgia standout Bubba Watson, who also had three birdies over the final six holes -- including one on 18 -- to cap an up-and-down round at 1-over 73.

Woods was six shots back, but at least he wasn't totally out of it. Mired in the longest winless streak of his career, he considered it a promising, if plodding, start.

"Hey, there's a long way to go," Woods said. "I'm very pleased. I'm right there in the ballgame."

While Woods has gone 20 tournaments over 17 months without a win, he's always a contender at Augusta National. He's captured four green jackets and finished fourth a year ago, coming back from a long layoff caused by the sex scandal that ruined his marriage and tarnished his image.

McIlroy is used to contending in the majors, finishing third at last year's British Open and PGA Championship. He also helped Europe reclaim the Ryder Cup. Now, he's the youngest first-round leader in Masters history after a bogey-free round.

"I trusted everything," McIlroy said. "I trusted where I wanted to hit the ball. That's the key around here. With some of these pins, you can get tentative and try to guide it in there. You just have to pick your targets and trust your swing. I was very happy with the way I did that."

McIlroy nearly duplicated his dynamic start at last year's British Open, where he started with a 63. The next day at St. Andrews, in a howling wind that actually forced a brief delay, he slumped to an 80.

He shouldn't face those conditions in Georgia, where the forecast calls for warm, sunny weather through the weekend. Whatever happens, he feels better prepared to deal with any adversity.

"At the time, it was very disappointing," McIlroy said, referring to his second-round collapse at St. Andrews. "But looking back, it was probably very valuable in my progression as a golfer."

Now, he's got to avoid a British Open-like meltdown.

"I have that experience to draw on," he said, "especially being in a similar position to last year at St. Andrews. I feel like I'm better prepared to tee off in the second round of a major with the lead."


Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.