Tiger Woods hits out of the rough off the third hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 7, 2011, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) By David J. Phillip
Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain watches his shot on the first fairway during the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 7, 2011, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel) By Charlie Riedel
Gregory Havret of France hits off the first fairway during the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 7, 2011, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) By David J. Phillip
Ryo Ishikawa of Japan watches his tee shot on the fourth hole during the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 7, 2011, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Chris O'Meara) By Chris O'Meara
Spectators watch Tiger Woods' shot out of the rough off the third fairway during the first round of the Masters golf tournament Thursday, April 7, 2011, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) By David J. Phillip
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) -- Rory McIlroy is contending again in a major championship, surging to an early lead at the Masters on Thursday.
The 21-year-old from Northern Ireland got rolling with three straight birdies, and he was at 6 under with four holes still to play on a warm, sunny day. That put him two shots ahead of two South Africans, Retief Goosen and Charl Schwartzel.
This is nothing new for McIlroy, one of the game's most dynamic young players. Last year, he finished third at both the British Open -- shooting an opening-round 63 at St. Andrews -- and the PGA Championship. He also helped the Europeans reclaim the Ryder Cup.
Goosen, a two-time U.S. Open champion, holed out an eagle at the first hole, but dropped back with consecutive bogeys in Amen Corner. Schwartzel also had an eagle at No. 8.
Trying to get his game in order, Tiger Woods made the turn with a 1-under 35, but slipped back to even with a three-putt bogey at No. 10.
Woods is in the midst of the longest winless streak of his career -- 20 tournament over 17 months -- but usually contends at Augusta National, where he's captured four green jackets and finished fourth a year ago.
The top scores in the clubhouse were a pair of 3-under 69s, turned in by Ross Fisher and Brandt Snedeker. Defending champion Phil Mickelson had yet to tee off in the next-to-last group.
The day began shortly after sunrise with Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer striking ceremonial tee shots, the traditional start to the year's first major.
With the overnight chill still lingering, the 81-year-old Palmer hit a little fade that stayed in the fairway. The 71-year-old Nicklaus went next, ripping one right down the middle about 30 yards past his longtime rival.
"I guess it's still kind of fun to lop it off the first tee and be part of a great event," Nicklaus said. "People enjoy it. It's Augusta's way of honoring its past champions and people such as Arnold and myself. It's really quite nice they allow us to do this."
But most eyes figured to be on Woods and Mickelson. Together, they've combined to win seven green jackets, including six of the last 10.
That might be about their only similarity at the moment.
Mickelson is coming off a three-stroke win at Houston, his first triumph since last year's Masters and a sign that his game is peaking at just the right time.
"I was able to kind of see the shot a little bit better and hold that picture in my mind throughout the swing and pull it off," he said.
Woods, on the other hand, hasn't won since a sex scandal ended his marriage and tarnished his image. He's in the midst of another complex swing change, still searching for the dominance that used to make him an automatic favorite at every event he entered.
For the first time since 1999, Woods isn't the Augusta favorite. Mickelson is the bookmakers' choice at 13-2, while his longtime rival is the second pick at 10-1.
"It doesn't matter," Woods said. "You still have to play the golf tournament, right? We all have an opportunity. Everyone has the same opportunity as I do."
Indeed, this is far from a two-man show.
PGA champion Martin Kaymer is the world's top-ranked player but he's never made it to the weekend at Augusta, missing the cut in all three of his previous appearances. The German was off to another rough start, 4 over through 11 holes.
Lee Westwood is a former No. 1 in the second spot behind Kaymer. The Englishman is regarded as the best player never to win a major, an unwanted distinction he'd sure like to erase from his record. But he was struggling, too, 1 over as he headed to the 13th hole.
Six of the top seven players have a shot at leaving Augusta in the No. 1 spot if they win, including third-ranked Mickelson, who squandered a dozen chances last year to take it. The next two -- No. 4 Luke Donald and fifth-ranked Graeme McDowell -- also are in the running.
Even Woods, who has slipped to seventh, isn't out of the chase for No. 1.
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)