By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Three years after suffering a final-round meltdown at the Masters, Rory McIlroy got back into contention for the year's opening major with an impressive display of patience and grinding golf on Thursday.
On a sun-baked Augusta National layout where danger lurked at every corner because of swirling winds and quickening greens, the Northern Irishman eked out a one-under-par 71 to sit three strokes off the first-round lead.
Though he bogeyed the par-four last after three-putting from the lower tier of the green, the 24-year-old double major winner was delighted to end a difficult day for scoring under par.
"They set the course up very difficult. Everyone needed to stay patient today. You had chances on the par-fives, and there were some tougher holes early that you could maybe take advantage of," McIlroy told reporters after mixing four birdies with three bogeys.
"But apart from that, the greens were getting firm on the back nine, the pin positions were difficult, you just really had to be wary of them. Anything in red numbers today was good."
The Northern Irishman, who squandered a four-shot overnight lead with a closing 80 at the 2011 Masters to tumble back into a tie for 15th, was overall happy with the quality of his approach shots into Augusta National's severely sloping greens.
"For the most part, I felt like I put my ball in the positions they needed to be in," former world number one McIlroy said. "It was just one of those days where it was tough to get it close to the hole.
"The greens are fast already. By Sunday they're going to be pretty dicey. I think every year you play practice rounds here, then there's just a little extra fire in the course come Thursday.
"It's a little firmer, a little faster. It's to be expected here."
McIlroy, who has yet to finish in the top 10 after five appearances at the Masters, felt his three-putt bogey at the 18th exemplified his day.
"There's putts you hit that look like they're going in and just hit the edge and all of a sudden they're four or five feet by," he said. "And you really grind on those coming back. 18 was a prime example for me.
"I hit a really good shot actually just to the bottom tier, hit my first putt up and it just slid by the right side and just kept going a little bit. It got a little low and I had like a five or six-footer coming back.
"It just didn't turn as much as I thought it would and it caught the side of the hole. I still had a good three, or four-footer coming back for a three-putt."
McIlroy, whose struggles on and off the course for much of his 2013 campaign are now behind him, felt the firm and fast conditions at Augusta National tightened up the field.
"It's not just about power then, it's about precision," he said. "It's about putting your ball in the right place and it becomes more of a mental challenge than anything else, just playing to your spots.
"It almost becomes like chess, where you're just making these moves. That hasn't been my forte in the past, but I'll learn to love it this week."
(Reporting by Mark Lamport-Stokes; Editing by Frank Pingue)