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McIlroy survives nerve-wracking return to Masters

By Julian Linden

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - For a few fleeting moments, it looked like Rory McIlroy was about to relive his 2011 Masters meltdown all over again.

Desperate to redeem himself after blowing a four-shot lead in the final round last year, McIlroy could hardly have made a worse start to Thursday's opening round, taking a double-bogey on the first hole.

He was still over par and struggling after making two bogeys early on the back nine but regained his composure to birdie the last two holes and finish with a topsy-turvy one-under-par 71, four shots off the pace.

"It'll make dinner taste a lot better tonight," he told reporters after walking off the 18th green at Augusta National.

"I wanted to at least finish even par, and birdying the last was really nice. I'm definitely happy coming off the course in red numbers."

While McIlroy's 71 was not as impressive as his opening round of 65 last year, the 22-year-old Northern Irishman was relieved to escape major problems on a day when most players struggled with the conditions and pressure at the Masters.

On the 10th hole, where he made a triple-bogey seven last year after driving into the nearby cabins, McIlroy made par despite missing the fairway with his drive.

He was not at his best but scrambled well under pressure, making five birdies, two bogeys and a double, and said he was confident he would play better as the tournament went on.

"I wouldn't quite say it was a soap opera, but it wasn't the best obviously," he said. "It wasn't the start that I would have liked to have got off to but I steadied the ship and made three birdies on the front nine to turn under par."

The birdies at the last two holes were more than just a confidence boost for McIlroy, who walked away with a big cheesy grin. They shot him up the leaderboard to a tie for 14th and within striking distance of outright leader Lee Westwood.

With an early tee time on Friday, McIlroy believes he can capitalize and shoot an even better score.

"I stayed very patient out there and didn't try and force things," he said. "I've been waiting for this day to come around for a couple weeks, to be honest. I've just been waiting and waiting, and it was nice when I finally got here.

"I'm pretty pleased with how I started. It could have been a little better. But I'll take 71, and hopefully it's a good score to build on."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)