Stricker flirts with major history; leads PGA

Steve Stricker matched the lowest round in under 63 en route to the round lead at the PGA Championship.

Stricker had 12 feet for birdie at the ninth, his last hole of the opening round. Had it dropped, Stricker would have been the first player to fire a 62 in a major.

It didn't, but Stricker can take solace in the first-round lead at the season's final major championship.

"I realized it was for 62, but I really wasn't thinking it was for history," Stricker said in a televised interview. "I hit a good putt. It just didn't go."

To make his score all the more impressive, it was not an easy day at Atlanta Athletic Club. Several players were under par after the first wave of tee times, but one that wasn't was a four-time champion who returned to competitive golf only last week.

Tiger Woods briefly shared the lead Thursday morning after three birdies in his first five holes, but the round took a drastic nosedive.

Woods played the next four holes in five-over par, including double-bogeys at the 15th and 18th holes.

The second nine wasn't much better, playing it at five-over. Woods double- bogeyed the sixth after a splash in the water, tallied four bogeys -- including one at his last -- and a lonely birdie at five.

It all added up to a seven-over 77, which was Woods' worst opening round in a major championship and his worst score in a PGA Championship, one of many big- name tournaments he has dominated over the years.

But this is clearly not the same Woods that won major championships with incredible frequency. After a prolonged absence earlier this year to heal a leg injury, Woods returned to competitive golf last week at the WGC- Bridgestone Invitational.

He didn't contend in Akron, but this was a bit of a stunner coming from the former world No. 1 who plummeted all the way down to 30th in this week's world rankings.

To put Woods' first-round disaster in focus, club pro Bob Sowards beat him by eight shots. He was matched at 77 by Jerry Pate, who won the 1976 U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club and got into the field this week only after he petitioned the PGA of America for a spot to say goodbye to competitive major championship golf.

Jerry Kelly is alone in second place at five-under 65, followed by Scott Verplank, who shot a three-under 67 on Thursday.

Thursday belonged to Stricker.

He opened the championship with three consecutive birdies and reached four- under par with a birdie at the par-three 15th. Stricker closed his opening side with a 25-foot birdie putt at the 18th.

Stricker kept the momentum going with a 15-foot birdie putt at No. 1. He birdied the par-five fifth and needed to play the last four holes at one-under par to break the major scoring record.

It didn't happen, but he certainly had some chances, none better than at the ninth.

Stricker's drive missed the fairway left, but he had a good lie and got plenty of club on the ball. He knocked his approach to 12 feet, but his putt missed right, ending the bid for history.

Shed no tears for Stricker.

The 44-year-old leads by two after the first round of the PGA Championship. He is majorless in his career and after back-to-back Comeback Player of the Year Awards, Stricker is as primed as ever to get that elusive major.

He's won two PGA Tour events a season for the last three season, including victories this year at the Memorial and the John Deere Classic.

Despite the record-equaling round, Stricker is well aware of the marathon nature of majors.

"You have to take one day at a time here in every tournament," said Stricker. "This is just a good start. One round under my belt, and you know, take tomorrow as it comes and go from there."

Davis Love III and Matteo Manassero headline a large group at two-under 68.

Phil Mickelson, the 2005 PGA Champion, had a one-over 71 on Thursday.

The reigning major champion trio of Charl Schwartzel, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke started in the afternoon, but that trio may become a duo.

McIlroy, who romped to victory at the U.S. Open, hit a tree root with his second shot at the third and appeared to injure his right wrist. He iced it in between shots and is wincing after impact.