AUGUSTA, Georgia, April 9 (Reuters) - Sergio Garcia, trying to end two decades of major disappointment, got the final round of the U.S. Masters off to a bright start with a birdie on the opening hole on Sunday to move one shot clear of Justin Rose.
After a week of battling challenging weather from torrential rains to howling winds, golfers were greeted by ideal scoring conditions on Sunday, blue skies and a gentle breeze providing the perfect backdrop for some final round drama.
Garcia, playing in his 71st consecutive major, was quick to take advantage, rolling in a short birdie to go seven-under, while Rose, who is looking for a Green Jacket to go with his Olympic gold medal parred the opening hole.
The Spaniard and Englishman began the final round sharing top spot on the leaderboard, with American young guns Rickie Fowler and 2015 winner Jordan Spieth in hot pursuit.
Spieth, bidding to extend his incredible run of Augusta magic having finished no worse than second in all three Masters he has contested, was not able to immediately take advantage of the superb conditions, carding a bogey on the first to fall four back of the leader.
Ageless wonder 57-year-old Fred Couples, who won his only Green Jacket 25 years ago, inched his way into the contention with three birdies on his opening four holes to get to one under, six off the pace.
Four-times major winner Ernie Els playing in his 23rd Masters, took what could have been his final bow at Augusta National, signing off with six-over 78 leaving the South African rock bottom of leaderboard on 20-over.
With his five year exemption for winning the 2012 British Open about to expire, Els will not get an automatic invitation back to Augusta next year.
The Big Easy has not given up hope of playing in a 24th Masters but will have to now qualify for the tournament like every other golfer.
"This tournament was just not for me," said the South African, a Masters runner-up in 2000 and 2004. "But I have loved every minute of being here and I'll come back somehow.
"Maybe just to have a couple of beers." (Editing by Andrew Both)