JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Only the wildest of days at the PGA Championship could relegate a guy shooting 63 to a supporting role.
That's just what happened to Steve Stricker.
He's the leader after the first round at Atlanta Athletic Club, just a hair away from shooting the best score ever in one of golf's four major events.
But Thursday will be remembered for more than just his brilliant play.
There was Tiger Woods, dumping two balls in the water and enough in the bunkers to feel as though he was on a beach vacation. A 14-time major champion? Try 14 strokes off the lead after shooting a 7-over 77, his worst score ever at the PGA.
There was Rory McIlroy, taking a foolish swing off a thick tree root and playing most of the round with an aching, taped-up wrist. The U.S. Open champion still managed a 70 and, with a thick wrapping, returned Friday to keep playing through the pain.
And let's not forget 19-year-old Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa, who should've brought his scuba gear to retrieve the six — yes, SIX — balls he put in the drink on the way to an 85. So much for being a contender coming off his strong performance the week before at Firestone.
"It's that kind of golf course," said Graeme McDowell, who struggled to a 74. "You can get in big trouble. You can make doubles and triples. But if you stay out of those, there are a lot of birdie chances."
No one took advantage more than Stricker, who kept his ball in the fairway for a bogey-free round. Starting on the back side, he cruised through the tough four-hole finishing stretch with two birdies, sparked by a hybrid tee shot to 10 feet at the 15th, a monstrous par-3.
"I really felt like I was in trouble coming into this tournament," Stricker said. "I really didn't feel that good on the course."
Well, imagine how Woods felt.
He started out like the Tiger of old, making three birdies in the first five holes for a share of the early lead. He ended like the Tiger we've seen more and more of over the past three years, spraying shots into the water, into a dozen bunkers — everywhere, it seemed, but the fairway.
The only time he's done worse in a major was that 81 in the 2002 British Open, largely because of hideous weather at Muirfield.
He couldn't blame this one on the conditions. It was a sunny, blistering day in the Deep South.
"I'm not down," Woods said. "I'm really angry right now."
McIlroy was hurting, his right wrist wrapped like a football player after the 22-year-old decided to swing at a ball that came to rest against that 2-inch-wide root on the third hole.
Ahhh, those crazy kids.
"In hindsight," McIlroy said, "it would have been better to chip out sideways."
He took a full swing at the ball instead, planning to let go of the club as soon as it made contact. Unfortunately, he held on a split-second too long, delivering a jarring blow to his wrist, the pain spreading all the way up to his shoulder.
He shook and flexed his wrist, held an ice compress on it between shots, got it checked out by a physical therapist and decided to carry on. An MRI showed a strained tendon, and he kept playing after testing his wrist on the range Friday morning. He made a three-putt bogey on the first hole.
"It's the last major of the year," McIlroy said. "I've got, what, six or seven months to the Masters? So I might as well try and play through the pain and get it over and done with."
Ishikawa was just plain done after a stunningly dreadful performance, the worst of his professional career. It got so bad at one point that he just "stopped counting."
Strange, since his practice rounds went well and he anticipated a good showing. But he grew stiffer and less confident with each mistake. And, boy, were there a lot of mistakes.
"I think this is probably the first time I hit so many in the water," Ishikawa said through an interpreter.
Stricker stood a mere 10 feet away from the lowest round ever in a major, a birdie putt that would've given him a 62. He hit it firm but a little right, the ball sliding by the cup as the gallery groaned.
Only after he missed did his caddie, Jimmy Johnson, tell him that it was for the record in a major.
"It never really registered," Stricker said. "I was just trying to make a birdie and finish 8 under, and I really was concentrating on the putt, but never thought about the history part of it."
His Wisconsin neighbor, Jerry Kelly, had a career-best 65 and was two shots behind. Completing the American foursome atop the leaderboard was former PGA champion Shaun Micheel at 66, and Scott Verplank with a 67, perhaps the biggest surprise of the day because Verplank has been battling a wrist injury. Now, he'll have some company in physical therapy with McIlroy hurting, too.
The U.S. is off to a good start in its quest to end an 0-for-6 drought in the majors, its longest of the modern era. Phil Mickelson was the last American to win one, the 2010 Masters.
Mickelson shot 71 and spent a good deal of time afterward griping about the 7,467-yard course — the longest par 70 ever at a major.
"This is a great example again of how modern architecture is killing the participation of the sport," Lefty said.
But most felt this was a fair test, a mix of extremely difficult holes but some shorter ones that set up well for birdies. The PGA of America moved up several tees, and temperatures in the 90s enabled the ball to travel farther.
That didn't stop Ishikawa and eight other players from shooting in the 80s, including former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover.
Luke Donald, No. 1 in the world, opened with a 70, while second-ranked Lee Westwood began his quest for his first major at 71. McIlroy played in the traditional grouping of the year's major champions, with Masters champion Charl Schwartzel opening with a 71 despite a double bogey on the last hole, and British Open champion Darren Clarke struggling to a 78.
Stricker, the highest-ranked American at No. 5 in the world, had only 24 putts on greens that are remarkably smooth. At least most of them were, anyway.
If the opening round wasn't bizarre enough, the mowers malfunctioned Wednesday night and tore up chunks of turf on the edges of the 14th and 17th greens. They were patched well enough to play, yet they are considered ground under repair for the rest of the week.
Stricker already has won twice this year and feels as though he has nothing left to prove, especially after he came back from a slump and made history by being voted PGA Tour comeback player of the year — in consecutive seasons.
A major championship would be the topper.
"I guess I accomplished what I set out to accomplish six years ago, to get back in the winner's circle, to play well again," Stricker said. "All this other stuff is really just icing on the cake, and that's the way I treat it."
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