By Julian Linden
AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Like all Australian golfers, Marc Leishman knows all about his country's jinx at the Masters.
No Australian has ever won the Masters and for a country that is used to sporting success, it has become a source of national frustration.
The agonizing near misses of Greg Norman have only added to the country's obsession to end the drought but every new year brings fresh hope.
On Thursday at Augusta National, Leishman emerged as Australia's latest contender, shooting a brilliant six-under-par 66 in the first round to grab the clubhouse lead.
The 29-year-old made a nervous start, bogeying the first hole, but did not drop another shot all day as he charged up the leaderboard with a run of birdies on the back nine.
"It was awesome, but I never really got ahead of myself, because I know that this course can bite you pretty quickly," he said. "If you miss it in the wrong spot, you can easily have a bogey, and then double is pretty easy to come by around here.
"You've just got to miss it in the right spots and I was able to do that today. It obviously felt good to get on a roll with the four birdies in a row."
Leishman made his Masters debut in 2010, a year after he became the first Australian to be named PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, but was overawed by the event and missed the cut.
He failed to qualify in 2011 and 2012 but earned himself an automatic spot when he won his first PGA Tour event last year and said he is better prepared this time.
"The first time I was here a few years ago, I was like a bit of a deer in headlights," he said. "You just put all your mistakes in the memory bank and try and not make them again."
Australians have won each of golf's other three majors but the Masters has eluded the country's best golfers since Jim Ferrier, the 1947 PGA Champion, blew a three-shot lead with six holes to play at Augusta National in 1950.
Peter Thomson won the British Open five times in the 1950s and 1960s but his best result at the Masters was fifth place in 1957. Then came Norman, whose cruel close calls at Augusta became torturous viewing for Australians.
Norman finished runner-up in 1986, bogeying the last hole to miss out on a playoff with a 46-year-old Jack Nicklaus. A year later, he was beaten in a playoff by Larry Mize, who holed out from a bunker, but his darkest moment was yet to come.
In 1996, Norman led by six shots heading into the final round but crumbled to shoot a 78 and finish second again.
In 2012, Australia's Adam Scott held the outright lead with two holes to go with countryman Jason Day his nearest challenger. But both were overhauled by South Africa's Charl Schwartzel who birdied the last four holes.
"Growing up as a kid, you know, you just (imagined) having the putt to win the Masters," Leishman said. "(Winning the Masters) would be huge obviously, but there's a lot of golf left and a lot of hurdles to clear.
"But if I can keep playing the way I'm playing, keep holing the crucial par putts and just putting the way I have been, there's no reason why not."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)