AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 6 (Reuters) - Rory McIlroy rode a late fightback to card an even-par 72 at the Augusta National on Thursday, keeping alive the world number two's hopes of a maiden U.S. Masters title to complete his collection of golf's four majors.
The top-ranked player in the field after Dustin Johnson's late withdrawal, the Northern Irishman carded three birdies over the final six holes to finish the day seven shots behind first-round leader Charley Hoffman.
The strong finish erased a woeful start for the 27-year-old, who dropped three shots over his first eight holes in windy conditions that ensured only 11 players broke par.
"Thankfully I managed to birdie the two par fives and another one coming in and even par was a great score so I'm really happy with that," said McIlroy.
"I know I did my best out there and I gritted it out, and I would have ripped someone's hand off for a 72 on the 10th tee."
With world number one Johnson injured and Jason Day (74) and Jordan Spieth (75) further adrift, McIlroy emerged from the opening round as the most likely of the pre-tournament favourites to don the Green Jacket on Sunday.
A Masters title would add to McIlroy's wins at the U.S. Open (2011), British Open (2014) and PGA Championship (2012, 2014) and make him the sixth player to accumulate a full set of major titles over a career.
McIlroy's preparations were hampered by a six-week injury layoff but he remained one of the favourites to win on a layout that is perfectly suited to his long driving and creative shot-making.
After the rocky start, the former world number one lived up to his billing with confident pitching and solid work on the greens that allowed him to save par on a number of holes.
"I've done the work on the short game and I believe I'm doing the right things," he said.
"I just didn't want to give up. I wanted to put my head down, show a bit of grit, a bit of determination, and I was able to do that.
"I'm in a good position with three rounds to go and we will see how it goes." (Editing by Nick Mulvenney)