Shane Lowry in contention after opening day at The Masters

GolfBy Sunday World
Lowry flying the Irish flag at Augusta
Lowry flying the Irish flag at Augusta

Defending champion Jordan Spieth assumed his customary position on top of the leaderboard with a brilliant 66 as Shane Lowry led a powerful European challenge for a first Masters title since 1999.

Spieth (below), who was second on his debut in 2014 and claimed a first green jacket with a record-breaking performance 12 months ago, carded six birdies and no bogeys despite swirling winds on the opening day at Augusta National.

That gave the 22-year-old a two-shot lead over Lowry and New Zealand's Danny Lee, with Paul Casey, Justin Rose, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Soren Kjeldsen all a shot behind on three under.

Rory McIlroy (below), who is seeking a first Masters title to complete the career grand slam, was a shot further back alongside Danny Willett, with McIlroy dropping shots on the 16th and 18th and Willett making his only bogey of the day on the last.

World number one Jason Day was a shot off the lead when he raced to the turn in 31 with an eagle and three birdies, but dropped five shots in his last four holes - including a triple bogey on the 16th - to finish level par.

Spieth, who is looking to become just the fourth player after Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger Woods to successfully defend the year's first major championship, led from start to finish after an opening 64 last year and was quickly into his stride with birdies on the third, sixth and eighth.

The world number two, who set records for the highest number of birdies (28) and lowest 36 and 54-hole totals in Masters history last year, also birdied the 10th, 13th and 18th, but was equally pleased to scramble pars on the 11th, 12th and 16th.

"I would have signed for two under today and not even played the round, knowing the conditions that were coming up," said Spieth, who is a record 29 under par for his nine competitive rounds in the Masters. His position after each of those rounds reads 12-3-1-2-1-1-1-1-1.

"I got a lot out of the round with what I felt like was kind of average-ish ball-striking. I got the most I could probably get out of my round today. I think the round today may have been better than the first round last year because of the conditions, I definitely could make that argument."

Lowry declared himself delighted with his opening round of 68 at The Masters, even though he missed chances to shoot an even lower round in at Augusta.

Lowry finished two shots off early leader Jordan Spieth, with the Offlay man looking forward to making a push for his first major title after his flying start.

“If you had have given me this at the start of the day, I would have bitten your hand off,” stated Lowry. “I played really well today and I am pretty happy to be sitting where I am right now.

“I was just trying to keep it going as long as I could after my fast start. I made a 12-footer on the first to hold par and then holed a couple of 15-20 footer, so I was off and running.

“It was difficult today. It windy and any birdie you could get was hard work. Par was a good score, but I was lucky to make a couple of good putts coming in.

“I woke up this morning and I felt great. I was excited, I wasn’t nervous. I just couldn’t wait to get started. Hopefully I wake up in the same frame of mind on Friday.”

Here is the full first round leaderboard: