Photo by Christine Troyke
JOHNS CREEK — To many people, 63 is just a number.
In one of golf’s major championships, however, it is a magic number.
Steve Stricker put up that magic number in the opening round of the 93rd PGA Championship, firing a 7-under par 63 to take a the early lead Thursday at Atlanta Athletic Club, two strokes ahead of Jerry Kelly.
That magic number tied Stricker for the lowest single round in a major, becoming the 23rd different golfers on 25 different occasions to reach it, including the 11th at the PGA.
It also matched the competitive course record at AAC set by Mark O’Meara, who shot 63 in his second round when the PGA was last held here 10 years ago, and it’s a position he never imagined himself in after struggling with his practice rounds earlier in the week.
“It was a good day,” Stricker understated. “Obviously, I got off to a good start. I came to the course really not expecting too much. … I don’t put take a lot of stock in those practice rounds, really. But I really felt like I was in trouble coming into this tournament. I really didn’t feel that good on the course.”
He felt a lot better after he birdied his first three holes and four of the first six after teeing off on the 10th hole.
Another birdie on 18 left him at 5-under as he made the turn, and he reached the 7-under mark with birdies at Nos. 1 and 5 before pars on the final three holes gave him his magic 63.
He actually had a chance set a new all-time majors low round with a birdie opportunity on his final hole at No. 9, but settled for the tie after two-putting for par.
“You know, I know 63 is that number that no one has gotten under, but I really never thought about it at all (Thursday),” Stricker said. “(Caddie) Jimmy (Johnson) told me after I missed the putt — he’s like, ‘You know, that was for the lowest competitive round in the history of major championships.’ And I’m like, ‘Oh, shoot, it was.’ It really never registered.
“I really was concentrating on the putt, but never thought about the history part of it.”
As dominant as Stricker was Thursday, his lead heading into today’s second round is only two strokes.
That’s because fellow Wisconsin native Kelly also got off to a strong start with birdies on four of his first seven holes, en route to a personal low round in majors with a 5-under 65.
“I think Steve, myself and Scott Verplank all played practice rounds the last couple of days,” Kelly said. “And we saw that you really didn’t need to overpower this golf course — that position was the key. It certainly helped me.”
Lurking just one shot behind Kelly is Shaun Micheel, who had one of the steadier rounds of the day, sprinkling birdies at Nos. 1, 3, 5 and 14 in a bogey-free round of 4-under 66.
Scott Verplank was four shots off the pace after carding a 3-under, while eight different players were in a group at 2-under, including Georgia resident and 1997 PGA champion Davis Love III. Reigning U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy had an eventful first round.
The 22-year-old from Norther Ireland injured his right wrist when he hit a tree root with a follow through on his third hole of the day, and spent the rest of the round with the wrist wrapped.
Despite the injury, McIlroy followed the bogey on that hole with a par and two straight birdies, and gutted out an even-par round of 70 before heading for an MRI later in the evening.
“If it’s the same (today), and I know that I’m not going to do any more damage to it, I’ll play,” McIlroy said. “There’s a couple points (Thursday) where I thought about not continuing. But, as I said, it’s a very important tournament, and I’m still — I’m still even par. I’m still in the hunt.”
McIlroy was diagnosed with a strained tendon in his wrist and plans to make a decision befor his 8:35 a.m. tee time today.
Another Georgia resident with a solid first round was local favorite Stewart Cink.
Playing a mere eight miles from his home at TPC Sugarloaf in Duluth, the 2009 British Open champion and Georgia Tech grad posted a 1-under 69 in front of his home crowd to stand in a group of 10 golfers at 1-under.
“It’s relaxing to have that kind of support,” Cink said. “I really appreciate the fans coming out and rooting me on. It’s great. I don’t get this opportunity very often.”
After birdies on two of his first three holes as he teed off on the back nine Thursday, Cink ran into trouble with a bogey on 13, a double bogey on 14 and another bogey on 16 to fall 2-over par.
But he rallied with three straight birdies on holes 4, 5 and 6 on his back nine to pull back into red numbers.
“I just kept plugging,” Cink said. “I kind of decided before I even got out here (Thursday) that I wasn’t going to just let myself fade away because of a few bad shots. Everybody’s going to hit bad shots. … I righted the ship pretty well. … I was proud of myself for that.”
Among some of the tournament’s other big names:
• Defending champion Martin Kaymer finished with a 2-over 72.
• Tiger Woods — in only his second majors start during this injury-plagued season — had one of his roughest days at a major with a 7-over 77.
• Phil Mickelson had an up-and-down day before finishing a 1-over 71.