JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — One stroke made all the difference Thursday at the PGA Championship. For Steve Stricker. For Tiger Woods. For Rory McIlroy.
Stricker was one 12-foot birdie putt on the last green from making major championship history, but a record-tying 63 wasn't a bad consolation prize. "Yeah, it was a good day," a grinning Stricker admitted.
Woods was three under par through five holes and lurking near the top of the leaderboard when he hit his iron shot into the pond at the 260-yard, par-3 15th. He made a double bogey that began a downward spiral that resembled this week's Wall Street tumble: Woods played the last 13 holes in 10 over par and shot 77.
McIlroy, your popular U.S. Open champion from Northern Ireland, unwisely tried to hit a shot off a tree root on the third hole and injured his wrist. He received medical attention several times on the course, eventually having the wrist wrapped, but he gamely played on. After a bogey-par finish on the final two holes, McIlroy posted an even-par 70.
One stroke. It can make a difference.
Woods all but played himself out of contention. He found more greenside bunkers (seven) at the difficult Atlanta Athletic Club than he did fairways (five). He made three double bogeys, including one at the 18th, his ninth hole of the day, where his drive plugged in the fairway bunker, and another at the sixth, where his approach shot from a fairway bunker splashed in a lake left of the green. By the end of the round, Tiger was reeling and appeared to be steering his shots away from trouble rather than at targets. It was in stark contrast to his confident pre-tournament comments about a possible "W."
Woods didn't have many positives in this round, which left him two touchdowns (14 shots) behind Stricker. He was unable to keep his tee shots in play, which really hurt. Worse, his misses went both directions — the dreaded two-way miss, as he often calls it. All things considered, it was a serious setback to Tiger's road to recovery.
"I start[ed] fighting it, and I couldn't get it back," Woods said of his swing.
Asked if he felt down after the round, Woods answered, "I'm not down. I'm really angry right now. There's a lot of words I could use beyond that."
As for the kind of adjustments he'll have to make before Friday's round, Woods joked weakly, "It's going to be a lot. It's a laundry list."
McIlroy played the Dumb Shot of the Day. He injured his wrist on the third hole when he hit a shot from the rough and struck a clearly visible tree root with such force that he bent the hosel of his 7-iron. He received medical attention, leading to speculation over the next few holes that he might have to withdraw. He bogeyed the third hole but birdied the fifth and sixth and was able to finish the round. According to the Associated Press, McIlroy had an MRI after his round, which showed a strained tendon in his wrist. He will rest overnight and plans to make his 8:35 tee time.
"It was dangerous," McIlroy said later of the root shot. "I thought if I could make contact with the ball and just let the club go, I might get away with it. In hindsight, it would have been better to chip out sideways. I jarred my right wrist and my right forearm, and it was very painful after that.
"It's the last major of the year. I've got six or seven months to the Masters, so I might as well try to play through the pain. To shoot even par, it was a good effort."
When Stricker missed that 12-footer on the final hole, it nearly qualified as news by itself because he ranks as the No. 1 putter on the PGA Tour.
After he made his par there, caddie Jimmy Johnson told him, "That putt was for the lowest competitive round in major championship history." That's when it dawned on Stricker.
"I'm like, oh, shoot, it was," he said. "It never really registered. I was just trying to make a birdie and finish eight under par. I was really concentrating on the putt. I never thought about the history part of it."
So much for the dire pre-tournament predictions of what a long and grueling beast Atlanta Athletic Club was going to be this week. All the moaning about the 260-yard par 3 and the monster 18th hole and the rough, and a 44-year-old guy from Wisconsin shoots a bogey-free 63 right out of the gates. And another 44-year-old guy from Wisconsin, Jerry Kelly, was in second after shooting 65.
With AAC stretched to 7,467 yards, it was supposed to be a course for big hitters only. Not hardly. Stricker, Kelly and 47-year-old Scott Verplank discovered the truth during the practice rounds they played together. It's counterintuitive, but short hitters frequently do well at long tracks because they hit it straight, otherwise they wouldn't be on Tour in the first place. Straight usually works.
"Steve, myself and Scott all played practice rounds, and we saw that you don't need to overpower this golf course," said Kelly, of Madison, Wis. "Position is the key. Those practice rounds certainly helped me, and I know it helped those guys."
Verplank shot 67 and was tied for third after the morning wave of play, reuniting the practice round threesome at the top of the leaderboard until 2003 PGA champ Shaun Micheel broke up the party with a four-under 66 to take over third.
Stricker was the history-maker. It's surprising, given the advances in golf technology, that 63 remains the best score ever posted in a major championship.
Overall, 23 players have shot 25 rounds of 63 in the majors. Greg Norman and Vijay Singh did it twice. Tiger Woods was the last to do it in the PGA, posting 63 in the second round of the '07 PGA at Southern Hills in Tulsa. Johnny Miller was the first to do it, in the final round of the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. The last was Rory McIlroy, who shot 63 in the 2010 British Open's opening round at the Old Course, then followed it with an 80.
Being the unassuming and humble-to-a-fault Midwesterner that he is, Stricker was fairly nonplussed about his historic round, although very pleased. Asked what was the most meaningful thing about his round, he answered, "That I shot 63."
Asked if he could name any of the other players who have fired 63s, he grinned and admitted no, he couldn't. He was also asked if he felt like he was the best American golfer right now because he's the highest-ranked in the Official World Golf Rankings.
"No," he said. "Why not? I don't know. That's just who I am. I don't want that pressure. I try to downplay all that stuff, I really do. It's flattering, but I just want to go out and play and let all that other stuff take care of itself."
Stricker had a 25-footer for birdie at the eight hole, his 17th of the day, and that 12-footer at the ninth, to get the scoring record. What may be more amazing is that Stricker birdied the 15th and the 18th holes, probably the toughest and most dangerous holes on the course. At the 15th, which played 254 yards to the pin Thursday, Stricker hit a hybrid club to 10 feet and made the putt.
Adam Scott also had no trouble with the 15th. "I don't know what all the fuss is about, it was just a hybrid on the green and I made the putt for 2," said Scott, last week's Bridgestone Invitational champ. "No, really, it's not a lot of fun to play that hole. It's 260 yards or so. You've got to hit a great shot just to get it near the green."
At 18, which has bunkers right and water left and is 507 yards of manly par 4, Stricker hit 3-wood to the fairway and a hybrid to 30 feet and holed that one, too. What are the odds of anyone making birdie at those two holes in the same round? Probably about the same as anybody shooting a 63 in a major. Well, Stricker did it.
"I was able to get through that stretch, 15 through 18, and play them in a couple under," Stricker said. "That's like stealing probably three, four shots from the field. It's a tough stretch. That probably set up the whole round, really."
It's not as if Stricker is a surprise. He's played well for several years, the best golf of his life, really. He won the Memorial Tournament in early June and the John Deere Classic in early July.
"There's not much left for Steve to do," said Kelly, a good friend of Stricker's. "He surprised everybody up until now, but it's not surprising anymore. Now it's, 'Oh, there's Steve — look out!' Everybody still considers it only a matter of time until he wins a major. He's got a pretty good start on it this week. He's going to be awful tough."
There was a big group at 68, which did not include notables Phil Mickelson, who shot 71 and had issues with his short putting again, or Bubba Watson, who was four under through six holes and finished with 74.
Asked what he was going to Tweet about his disappointing round, Watson answered, "I suck at golf."
The Atlanta Athletic Club course made more than a few golfers feel that way, like Japan's Ryo Ishikawa, who shot 85.
But not Stricker. He had 63 reasons to feel good.