By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Rory McIlroy hurt his wrist but it was Tiger Woods' pride that was wounded on Thursday.
Steve Stricker didn't know it at the time but he stood over a putt on his final hole that would make history. And while the teenagers took off in different directions -- 18-year-old Matteo Manassero fired a 68 while 19-year-old Ryo Ishikawa plummeted to an 85 -- the old guys seemed to make the most of a first round packed with drama at the 93rd PGA Championship.
Stricker isn't the oldest player in the field -- that distinction goes to the 63-year-old Larry Nelson -- but at 44 he led an improbable surge of veterans to the top of the leaderboard. His 63 was two strokes better than his good friend and fellow Cheesehead Jerry Kelly, also 44, while former PGA champ Shaun Micheel, who's 42, held solo third after a 66 and Scott Verplank, the old man at 47, was another stroke behind.
And while the TV broadcast inexplicably cut to a commercial, Stricker missed the 15-footer that would have given him the lowest score ever shot in a major championship. Only after Stricker tapped in for par did his long-time caddy Jimmy Johnson dare to mention the significance of what had nearly happened.
"I'm like, oh, shoot, it was," Stricker recalled the conversation. "It never really registered. I was just trying to make a birdie and finish 8 under. I really was concentrating on the putt but never thought about the history part of it."
Even so, Stricker joined 23 other players -- although he admitted he couldn't name any of them -- in shooting the still-magical 63 and he is in prime position to potentially win his first major championship this week at the Atlanta Athletic Club. That's more than many others can say, particularly the man who has 14 of them in his trophy case.
In a stunning reversal of fortune on Thursday, Woods shared the lead after six holes and finished all 18 in a distant tie for 129th. The 77 blows the former world No. 1 struck on Thursday marked his most ever in a PGA Championship and left him in very real danger of missing the cut in just his fourth major championship, as well as the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCUp.
Woods started on the back nine and birdied three of his first six holes. He was so encouraged by his start, though, Woods forgot about the mechanics of the new swing he's so carefully crafting with Sean Foley and those incompatible old "motor patterns" crept in. Five bogeys and three double bogeys later, Woods pronounced himself "angry" and with a "laundry list" of things to work on before Friday afternooon.
"I just thought, this is a major and you peak for those events," Woods said, his face grim. "And once you get to a major championship, you just let it fly, let it go. I did and it cost me."
McIlroy is hoping that playing another 15 holes after he hit a root and injured his wrist at No. 3 won't prove costly, as well. The 22-year-old reigning U.S. Open champion was in obvious pain for several holes but opted to continue after a physiotherapist examined him on the fifth green and assured him no further damage would be done.
McIlroy, who iced the wrist between shots and eventually had it taped, went on to shoot a 70 that may have been below original expectations but was solid nonetheless. He immediately headed for the hospital to have an MRI and according to a statement released several hours later was diagnosed with a strained tendon. So now the Northern Irishman has until 8:35 a.m. on Friday to decide whether to tee it up again.
"It's a very important tournament and I'm still even par," McIlroy said. "I'm still in the hunt. So we'll see what the results are tonight and if I can strap it up and play again tomorrow, I will."
Ishikawa will, too, and he's hoping for a dramatic turnaround. The Japanese teenager, who was coming off an impressive tie for fourth last week at the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational, made six double bogeys and hit six balls in the water on the way to his highest score of the year. Things got so bad Ishikawa said he "stopped counting," although he eventually had to add it all up.
Ah, the unpredictability of youth. Matteo Manassero, on the other hand, put himself squarely in the thick of the competition with the round of 2 under in his first PGA Championship. Only seven players have won in their debuts, most recently Micheel in 2003, and the two-time European Tour champ came to Georgia with a solid resume already.
The Atlanta Athletic Club drew rave reviews in most quarters -- Stricker even called the greens "unbelievably perfect." The two that were damaged Wednesday night when the dewpoint rose and the brushes of the mower got stuck in the grass only caused consternation for the course superintendent who nonetheless had the quote of the day when he compared what happened to "cutting yourself with a razor on your wedding day."
Much had been made this week of the length Rees Jones added when he redesigned the AAC after it hosted the PGA Championship 10 years ago. But the top four players on the leaderboard rank 116th, 187th, 130th and 180th, respectively, in driving distance so placement appears to be as important as power this week.
Phil Mickelson, who was disappointed with his 71, loves the AAC as a major championship venue -- "It's terrrific," Lefty said. But he called the lengthy par 3s the "perfect example of how modern architecture is killing the participation of the sport because the average guy just can't play it."
Fortunately, this week at the PGA Championship, there are no average Joes in the field, And if Thursday was any indication, we're in for an interesting ride.