By PAUL NEWBERRY
AP National Writer
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - This was about as good a day for scoring as it gets at the Masters: the warm, soothing sun, the receptive greens, the breeze barely rippling the flags, the inviting pin locations to tease everyone before the green jackets turn nasty on the weekend.
It didn't matter.
Tiger Woods always takes a while to get warmed up at this place.
Since this was only Thursday, he deferred to Justin Rose savoring a third straight first-round lead - hey, another Masters tradition like no other - and watched from afar as Ian Poulter celebrated just the 19th hole-in-one in the tournament's storied history.
Woods seemed content to "just plod around" Augusta National on the way to a rather pedestrian 72, an even-par round buried beneath 18 others in the red.
Hmmm, haven't we been down this road before?
Woods spotted the leaders a three-shot headstart back in 1997, but still captured the first of his four Masters in a 12-shot runaway. The first-round deficit was five strokes in 2001, three in '02, a daunting seven in '05, when the world's greatest player chased down Chris DiMarco, then finished him off in a playoff.
No wonder he didn't seem too concerned as he strolled off the 18th green four shots behind co-leaders Rose and Trevor Immelman.
"I feel good about how I played all day," said Woods, who has never broken 70 in the opening round of the Masters. "I hit the ball really well. I hit a lot good putts that just didn't go in. I just have to stay patient out there, and hopefully it will turn."
Chances are it will. The pretenders usually fade away, leaving Woods to battle it out with expected contenders such as Jim Furyk (70), Phil Mickelson (71), Retief Goosen (71) and Vijay Singh (72).
"I just had to stay patient out there," Woods said. "I ended up OK, even par."
Give the guy credit: He doesn't have to hog the spotlight all four days as he tries to get started on a Grand Slam, the feat he has called "easily within reason."
Let's give a tip of the hat to guys like Rose, who sure knows how to handle the first 18 holes of the Masters, even if he's yet to master the other three days. This is the third straight time the gangly Englishman has at least shared the Thursday lead, posting a 4-under 68 that left him tied with Immelman.
Now, he's just got to figure out how to finish one of these things.
"You stay in the moment," Rose said. "That's so easy to say, but it's harder to do it. I guess that's what I've learned. I feel more comfortable on the leaderboard now."
Immelman is getting close to full strength after a strange year of health problems. He lost 20 pounds because of a stomach parasite after last year's Masters, and late in the year had a benign tumor removed from his diaphragm.
He's missed the cut in half his events this season, and his best showing in a stroke-play event is a tie for 40th.
"Obviously, my form has not been too stellar so far this season," the South African said. "I had to just stay patient with myself and know it's in there somewhere. You just have to remember you're a fairly good player."
He was in good company two weeks ago.
Rose, Immelman and Poulter flew up to Augusta for two days of practice, playing a few money games (Rose won) and sharing tips with each other. Immelman could only smile as his mates joined him on the leaderboard. Poulter was among those at 70.
"It's a great coincidence," Immelman said. "Hopefully, we keep it going."
Poulter sure had it going at No. 16, a 169-yard gem of a hole known as Redbud. He struck an 8-iron over the water, then watched the ball funnel down the slope and into the cup for an ace.
"Great timing," said Poulter, best known up to now for his garish clothes, eccentric hairstyle and his oft-ridiculed belief that he can work his way up to be the No. 2 player in the world behind Woods. "It gave me a great boost and a great adrenaline rush. It was pretty special."
One shot off the lead were Lee Westwood, Brandt Snedeker and Masters rookie Brian Bateman. Defending champ Zach Johnson, howing he's no fluke, was part of the logjam at 70. Mickelson, who's won at Augusta two of the last four years, rolled in an improbable birdie at the first hole that may have saved his round.
Lefty flew his approach 60 feet over the first green into a walkway, his ball resting on the pine straw. Using a putter, the ball scooted up the slope and rattled the pin before falling, turning bogey or worse into a birdie.
"It was at least a two-shot swing, possibly three," Mickelson said.
There was a big ovation again for Arnold Palmer, smacking his ceremonial tee shot so far that he never saw it land - but that was only because of soupy fog that caused a one-hour delay. More cheers followed Gary Player up the 18th fairway as the three-time Masters champion set a record by playing for the 51st time. He shot 83.
Snedeker and Westwood both reached 4 under until dropping shots in twilight, the sun dipping quickly behind the Georgia pines as the final groups hustled to complete their rounds before nightfall. Furyk bogeyed the last hole and wondered what the rest of the week held for everyone.
"It's 8 o'clock, it still feels like it's 70 degrees, there's no wind, the greens were somewhat receptive," Furyk said. "I think we had an opportunity to play today. And I don't expect that to keep up."
(Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)