Rory McIlroy got off to a solid start with his latest shot at a career Grand Slam at the Masters. Saving par on the final three holes in the opening round Thursday helped him keep it in sight.

McIlroy shot a 3-under 69, breaking 70 in the first round at Augusta National for the first time since 2011. He shot a 65 that year and looked like he would win a green jacket before a final-round meltdown. McIlroy heads into the second round Friday three shots behind Jordan Spieth, who made five consecutive birdies on the back nine to build a two-stroke lead over Tony Finau and Matt Kuchar.

“You look at it and not anyone is really getting away,” McIlroy said. “Jordan had a pretty strong finish there. But this is my best start in a few years. And, yeah, it’s such a hard golf course to play catch-up on. If you start to chase it around here, that’s when you start to make mistakes.

“But to be right up there and have the ability to stay patient because of the position I’m in, that’s a nice luxury I have over the next few days.”  He can thank a few timely shots down the stretch. McIlroy sank an 8-footer for par at No. 16, holed a sweeping, downhill, 13-footer for par on the next green and then chipped to a couple feet to save another par on 18.

“It’s not always the birdies that stick out in your mind,” McIlroy said, calling those shots the highlights of his round. “Those three holes. Big for momentum. I don’t feel like I’m going out trying to get those two shots or whatever back (Friday) morning. I can just be relaxed going on to the first tee, not being too concerned about trying to get those birdies back. So, yeah, they were huge.”

The first time McIlroy had a chance for the Grand Slam at the Masters, he opened 71-71 and found himself 12 shots back because Spieth ran away with it.

“Obviously it was very benign for us coming in the last few holes,” McIlroy said. “I’m not surprised about (Spieth) at all. He loves this golf course. He plays well around here. He always has. And he’s going to be tough to beat this week.”

By MARK LONG ,  AP Sports Writer

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