MASTERS NOTEBOOK: Guan, 14, doesn’t wilt in spotlight

Tianlang Guan, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, is the youngest player in Masters history.

Tianlang Guan, a 14-year-old eighth-grader, is the youngest player in Masters history.

McIlroy struggles on Day 1, still in hunt

AUGUSTA --- For a brief moment, it looked like Rory McIlroy was back to his best and ready to charge up the Masters leaderboard on Thursday. Then just as quickly, it looked like he was heading for another Augusta National meltdown.

In the end it was neither. The Northern Irishman shot a first round of even-par 72. No harm was done but no great inroads were made either.

"It could have been better," McIlroy conceded. "I felt like I played well and gave myself plenty of opportunities."

McIlroy birdied three of his first nine holes to reach the turn at two-under-par and seemingly ready to make further gains on the back nine.

But no sooner had he started his run, then he began to fall back and memories of his collapses in the previous two years came back.

He bogeyed the 10th hole, then the 12th, the 14th and finally the 17th. He recovered two of the shots with birdies but signed for a 72.

"I just made some silly mistakes, a couple of three-putts on the back nine," he said.

"I made enough birdies but I just need to cut those mistakes out and I'll be fine."

While McIlroy's 72 was seven shots worse than his first round score in 2012, the 23-year-old was relieved to escape without any major problems.

Two years ago, he led the Masters by four shots at the start of the final round before suffering a meltdown, shooting an 80 to plunge down the leaderboard and finish tied for 15th.

Last year, he was tied for third at the halfway stage but crashed out of contention with a third round 77. He contained the damage on Thursday.

"I turned in two-under par and everything felt good. That was the story of the day any time I got a bit of momentum I gave it straight back," he said.

"Around this course you really can't do that. I feel like the game is there, I mean I hit the ball really well."

Although still not at his best, there were plenty of positives for McIlroy, who has struggled with his game this year.

He has not won a tournament in 2013 and lost his number one ranking to Tiger Woods. At last month's Honda Classic in Florida, he quit during the second round, prompting speculation he was having problems adapting to his new Nike clubs.

McIlroy insisted his equipment was not the problem, blaming his exit on a sore tooth.

But he hit the ball cleanly from tee to green on Thursday only to be let down by his putter needing 32 putts to complete his round. Only 13 of the 93 starters took more.

"As long as I keep giving myself birdie opportunities like that and take a few of them, hopefully I can go out and post a good one tomorrow," he said.

"I am getting there. I think I am hitting the ball just as well. It is just a matter of taking the opportunities and limiting the mistakes."

AUGUSTA — Whether he was running in a birdie putt on No. 18, drawing applause from two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw or sitting at a podium and answering questions in both English and Chinese, Tianlang Guan never looked like a 14-year-old.

Rather, he looked like a true golfer.

The amateur, who is playing in his first Masters and is the youngest to ever tee it up at Augusta, shot a 1-over 73 in his first round. His parents said he didn’t act nervous during breakfast, but he conceded to a few jitters.

“Just a little bit nervous on the first tee,” Guan began, “but I hit a great tee shot on it and after that I felt comfortable.”

On more than one occasion, Crenshaw applauded shots by Guan, and the two played a practice round together earlier in the week.

“He played more like a veteran,” Crenshaw said. “That’s what really impresses me.”

Seven shots off the lead, Guan is in a good position in the tournament, but he kept steering his answers back to today’s second round.

“I just want to play some good golf (today) and just enjoy it,” he said. “I want to win a major, and hopefully I can win four majors in one year.”

Then Guan offered another concession.

“(Just) probably not this year,” he said with a smile.

MIZE IN THE HUNT: It was 2009 tha last time Larry Mize made the cut at Augusta, but the 1987 Masters winner put himself in a good position Thursday for another run

The 54-year-old Georgia native — one of just three players born in the Peach State to win the tournament — shot a 1-over 73, putting him five back of co-leaders Sergio Garcia and Marc Leishman.

“(I) just scrapped and clawed for everything I could,” Mize said. “You know, need to hit it a little better, but I really scored well (Thursday). My short game save me, so I got through OK.”

Mize only hit eight greens, but the Georgia Tech graduate averaged less than two putts a whole and it was an eight iron that he knocked close on No. 12 to set up one of his two birdies.

It’s Mize’s 30th Masters and he hasn’t finished in the Top 20 since 2000.

LEISHMAN'S SOLO LEAD DOESN'T LAST LONG: Marc Leishman had about three hours to enjoy leading the Masters all by himself.

When the Australia native finished his round at 6-under, he held a two-stroke lead and walked off the 18th green with a big smile.

“Obviously, I was happy,” said Leishman, who is playing in his second Masters and first since 2010. “I wanted to go out there and play well, and I did. I think smiling, being happy, is a good thing.”

But while he finished his post-tournament interviews and made his way to his rented home for the week, Sergio Garcia kept making birdies and Dustin Johnson notched the 2013 Masters’ first eagle. Garcia made the turn at 4-under and birdied the the par 5 16th to finish tied with Leishman. Johnson also reached 6-under, but bogeyed 17 to end the day one shot back.

And all Leishman could do was watch — or not watch — and wait as Garcia stole the story of the first-round of the Masters.

“I’ll just go home, back to the house we’ve rented, just be good to see Harvey, he’s my 15-month-old son,” he said. “Probably play around with him in the back and he’ll be throwing balls at me and I’ll be chasing him. That will keep me amused for sure.”

And the wait continues for Leishman, who doesn’t tee off today until 12:35 p.m. today. Leishman, however, knows how to wait.

It took the 29-year-old seven years as a professional until he won his first tournament --- the Travelers Championship last year. He came from six shots back during the final round to shock the field. But beginning so far back of the leaders in that tournament meant one thing: waiting.

“It was nerve-wracking,” Leishman said of the two hours he spent watching golf and hoping to hoist a trophy. “I was pretty relaxed about it, to be honest. I thought ... I’d finish second or third and go go home.”

When the wait ends this afternoon, Leishman will tee off as a leader of a major golf tournament and a tournament he failed to make the cut in the first time.

“The first time I was here a few years ago, I was like a bit of a deer in headlights, I guess,” he said. “Found myself looking around a little too much and not concentrating on getting the ball in the hole, which is what you need to do.

“To be here is awesome and sitting here is pretty cool. But, you know, it’s only Thursday afternoon, so a lot of golf left to play. But, I feel good about my game.”

BUBBA’S BAD DAY: Former UGA star Bubba Watson kept trying to steer the conversation. He didn’t want to talk about returning as Masters champion. He didn’t want to talk about bigger galleries. He didn’t want to talk about his position at 3-over par.

He wanted to talk about putting.

“I had four three-putts,” Watson said, admitting one was a putt from the fringe but close enough for him to count it. “I never got the speed right, never got the ball to the hole. They were slower than what I was expecting … I just left a lot of putts short.”

And he wasn’t the only owner of a green jacket struggle.

Four-time champion Tiger Woods, who finished 2-under par, also noted struggles reading the speed of the greens.

“We were (all leaving putts short),” Tiger said of him and playing partners Luke Donald and Scott Piercy. “The biggest challenge today was just the speed of the green. They just weren’t quite there. They looked it, but just weren’t quite putting it.”

HENLEY HAS SOLID START: Masters rookie and former UGA star Russell Henley shot an even-par 72 during the first round as he sits tied for 33rd overall and is six shots back of the lead.

TOUGH START FOR CINK: With a birdie on No. 9 to bring him back to even par, former Georgia Tech star Stewart Cink put himself in a good position at the turn Thursday.

When he finished, that position was much worse.

The Duluth resident, who last year just made the cut before a disastrous 81 on Saturday, double-bogeyed the par 3 12th and then bogeyed No. 14, finishing nine back with a 3-over 75.

Gwinnett Daily Post sports writer Ben Beitzel, Herald sports editor Danny Aller and Reuters News Service contributed to this report