By Julian Linden

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Charl Schwartzel made a solid start to his Masters defense at Augusta National on Thursday but was unable to conjure up the same magic that won him the green jacket a year ago.

On a day when most players struggled to shoot low scores, the South African finished with an even-par 72 and said he was relieved to have avoided any major damage.

"I felt good out there. I hit some really good shots," said Schwartzel. "My golf swing felt like I was in control of it and it could have easily been a two or three-under-par day."

He salvaged a par on the first hole and played the last four in one-over-par, making bogey on the 15th and 18th holes and a birdie at 17.

"Disappointing finish, bogey out of the middle of the fairway," he grumbled. "I wish I played like Sunday last year."

While Schwartzel struggled at the end, his good friend and compatriot Louis Oosthuizen finished strongly to charge up the leaderboard and into a share of second place.

The runaway winner of the 2010 British Open made birdies at four of the last five holes to sign for a four-under-par 68.

"I felt it was a really good round," he said. "At this golf course, you've got to be very patient. I played really well at the end, hit a lot of fairways and hit it pretty close and made a few putts."

Oosthuizen has missed the cut in each of his three previous appearances at the Masters so had turned to Schwartzel to help him do better this year.

"We play together a lot," Oosthuizen said. "Seeing the way he handled himself under the pressure which was brilliant, finishing with four birdies. The main thing was he put himself in a position to win.

"I tried to, to get the four, but I missed the one."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)