By Mark Lamport-Stokes
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Just like the Rioja wine he loves to drink after a round of golf, Miguel Angel Jimenez seems to get better with age and, apart from two shots, the Spaniard was in sparkling form at the Masters on Thursday.
The 50-year-old from Malaga, who bettered his own record as the European Tour's oldest winner at the Hong Kong Open in December, birdied four of the first nine holes on the way to a one-under-par 71 at Augusta National in the opening round.
His outward nine of four-under 32 briefly catapulted him into the outright lead before he slipped back with a bogey at the 11th and a double at the tricky 12th, where fickle winds swirled for much of the afternoon.
"It was nice," Jimenez told reporters after parring the last six holes in dazzling sunshine to finish three strokes behind pacesetting American Bill Haas.
"I was four-under-par in the first nine holes and that's the best start that I have had here. I played beautiful golf today, beautiful. Only two holes I made bad mistakes.
"I hit a poor shot on 11 and then I hit a poor shot on the 12th. But after that I played beautifully and it was really nice. I'm very pleased to be four under after nine holes and moving on."
Jimenez, who has recorded three top-10s in 14 Masters starts with a best finish of joint eighth in 2008, was delighted to be in early contention for the first of the year's four majors.
Asked if it was harder for the older players to challenge for the coveted green jacket on a par-72 layout measuring 7,435 yards off the back tees, the pony-tailed Spaniard replied: "It's hard for anyone.
"There are a lot of young guys that can hit the ball a long ways. I don't hit the ball that far but I hit it and it goes straight to the flag, you know. It's nice to see that I'm being competitive with all the guys."
Known for his laidback demeanor and cigar-puffing warmup routine on the practice range, Jimenez said he always tried to have fun while playing competitive golf.
"When you get older, you need to concentrate on the shots and between shots just try to be yourself, try to put a smile on your face and don't worry about everything else," he grinned.
"You need to smile and make the fans feel happy."
As for his cigars, that was an enjoyment he reserved for before and after rounds of golf.
"On the course, I don't smoke," said the 20-times European Tour winner, whose best major finish was a tie for second at the 2000 U.S. Open. "I don't want to lose my cigar out there.
"There's enough worry about the game to worry about where I left my cigar. I smoke them before and after or while practicing. But I don't smoke them on the course."
Asked whether he would be returning to the practice range after speaking to reporters, Jimenez replied: "I'm going to eat, have a cigar and then go to the range."
(Editing by Tony Jimenez)