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McIlroy steady in pursuit of Masters form

ESPN staff
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Rory McIlroy continued his preparations for the Masters in San Antonio © Getty Images
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Valero Texas Open leaderboard

Rory McIlroy saw some reasons for encouragement as he began his Masters tune-up at the Valero Texas Open in steady fashion.

The Northern Irishman, looking for more competitive practice ahead of next week's major at Augusta National, carded an opening round of 72 - level par - in windy and cold conditions at TPC San Antonio to stay within touch of the early leaders.

The Texas course, notoriously one of the hardest on the PGA Tour calendar, did not yield many low scores on Thursday - with another Irishman, Padraig Harrington, initially taking the clubhouse lead after a four-under effort of 68. That left him tied with Billy Horschel, while the likes of Jason Gore and Englishman Brian Davis sat just one shot adrift before Matt Bettencourt later became the first player to reach five-under.

McIlroy, beginning his round at the 10th, started with four consecutive birdies before reaching two-under after birdies at the 14th and 17th, before a mistake at the par-five 18th - finding the water with his third shot - saw him forfeit a shot.

McIlroy's back nine started with two more bogeys - a failed up-and-down costing him at the first, then a wild second shot at the par-five second leaving him to hack out from the rough - but he rebounded with successive birdies at the fifth and sixth; rolling in virtually identical six-foot putts after measured approaches.

At that point the two-time major champion looked like being one of the few players in the clubhouse under-par for the day, but a final bogey at the ninth - this time missing a short putt for his par - left him to settle for a 72.

That put him four shots behind Harrington, who had five birdies on his round before a bogey at the last served as his only mistake of the day.

"I'm not walking away from this round thinking 'Wow, I hit a number of pure golf shots,' or anything like that," Harrington said afterwards. "It was more mental fortitude than ball striking."

He added: "Most of the time you're hitting knock-down shots and three-quarter swings.

"I'm not under pressure to go out there and shoot eight-under. This morning, early on, it was a battle of survival. Last week back in Ireland it was snowing and I didn't feel this cold.

"There was a feeling of 'Let's just hang in there and stay in the tournament.' Sometimes that lets you play a little bit more within yourself."

Swede Peter Hanson was the first player in the clubhouse at two-under, while Ian Poulter was one of the last. The European Ryder Cup duo were one shot ahead of a group including Gary Woodland and Jordan Spieth - who concluded with a triple bogey at the eighth (his 17th).

Matt Kuchar, meanwhile, began with a round of 74.

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