Colin Montgomerie believes his game is returning to the level of the all-conquering days when he dominated the European Tour after his seven-under-par 65 in defence of his Masters title here yesterday.
The 41-year-old Scot was in commanding form as seven birdies and no bogeys gave him a three-stroke lead over the English pair, Nick Dougherty and Mark Foster, and the Malaysian Danny Chia.
A year ago Montgomerie dropped only one shot in four rounds on his way to a three-stroke victory on the same course but he believes he is in even better shape than 12 months ago. He even went as far as saying yesterday's round reminded him of happier times when he won the European Order of Merit seven times in a row.
Apart from the win here last year, an encouraging performance in The Open at Troon and holing the winning putt in the Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in September, Montgomerie endured a miserable 2004 with a slump in form coinciding with a highly publicised divorce from his wife, Eimear.
"I really feel that this is a fantastic start to the new year, it is the way I used to play in the 1990s where I didn't make mistakes," he said. "I am always very proud of the fact when I finish a round of golf and I haven't made a mistake.
"I never missed a green today, hardly missed a fairway and that was as good as I have ever done in these circumstances. To start out a year where the pressure is on for me to get my world ranking back to where it should be, and I know it should be in the top 20, this is a fantastic start."
However, he has adopted a more positive approach this year and added: "You can't win a tournament on the first day but you can lose it and I am looking forward to continuing. I have [former caddie] Alastair McLean back on the bag and I am as happy on and off the course as I have ever been in my life."
Lee Westwood, the highest-ranked player in the field, began with two birdies but bogeyed the 392-yard fourth and, after nine successive pars, picked up another shot at the par-four 14th for a two-under-par round of 70, alongside the Welshman Jamie Donaldson.
In contrast, his Ryder Cup team-mate David Howell rescued his round with birdies at the final two holes to finish one over par after three bogeys between six and 13.
* Britain's Justin Rose was one shot off the lead after the first round of the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in La Quinta, California. The 24-year-old carded a seven-under-par 65 to sit behind a group of five players sharing the lead - Robert Damron, Fred Funk, Joe Ogilvie, Ted Purdy and Duffy Waldorf.