Rory McIlroy struck the ball well enough during Thursday's first round to place himself squarely in contention at the Masters.
But he almost putted his way back out of it.
That, then, appears to be the sticking point as McIlroy, winner of the U.S. Open in 2011 and the PGA Championship in 2012, seeks his first Masters title and third major overall. McIlroy completed his opening round with a one-under par-71 that left him just three shots behind leader Bill Haas—but it could have been and arguably should have been better.
The world's former No. 1-ranked player, now ranked No. 9, missed a four-foot putt for par on the final hole that would have put him one shot closer to Haas, who opened with a four-under 68.
McIlroy told the BBC afterward that he would have been "really happy" with his round on what he described as a "very difficult" course setup had he not missed the short putt on No. 18. But earlier he also three-putted on the par-three 12th hole for a bogey and took a bogey six on the par-five eighth.
"When I saw the pin positions I thought they didn't want people to get too many under par," McIlroy added. "The greens are drying out quickly, anything under par is good. By Sunday they are going to be pretty dicey."
McIlroy, who is tied for 12th heading into the second round, carded four birdies but also had three bogeys on Thursday.
He struck the ball well, hitting nine of 14 fairways and 15 of 18 greens in regulation. But, per Jeff Babineau of Golfweek.com, he took 34 putts—five more, for instance, than amateur Matthew Fitzpatrick, who did not strike the ball nearly as well as McIlroy and shot a four-over 76 as a result.
For McIlroy, at least being in position to make some short putts is something of a triumph after his well-documented struggles last season. McIlroy began the 2013 season as the world's top-ranked player, but in 19 subsequent worldwide tournaments, he missed four cuts, withdrew from one and finished worse than 40th five times.
After winning one major in each of the two previous seasons, he never broached contention in three of the four majors a year ago and only briefly seemed to make a move before settling for eighth in the PGA Championship.
Asked by ESPN.com to explain his troubles toward the end of last season, McIlroy said it was a touch of everything from his driving to his putting while adding: "I just don't have my scoring hat on. That's what is holding me back. I'm hitting the ball pretty well, I'm just not scoring ... It's frustrating, but I'm trying to stay as patient as I can."
If nothing else, perhaps last year's difficulties lowered expectations for McIlroy and took off some of the pressure to perform at a level of near-perfection this season. He's trying mightily to make certain that when he does encounter trouble during a round, he doesn't let a bogey become a double bogey, or worse, that dooms his entire day.
He was able to do that Thursday at the Masters, which he took as a good sign.
"The greens are firming up, the wind was all over the place. It was a good day at the office," McIlroy told the BBC. "If conditions stay the same and they put the pin positions in tough spots, it will be tough to get your ball close, so anything even par, one-under, two-under is a good score.
"I'm feeling good with my game and in here relaxed to try and enjoy the week. If I can do that and not get ahead of myself then hopefully I'll give myself a great chance."
And to do more than that, he'll have to start dropping more putts.
Joe Menzer hacks his way around golf courses wherever he can when he's not busy writing about golf, college basketball, NASCAR and other sports for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @OneMenz.
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