Stricker shoots 63 to take early PGA lead

Steve Stricker hits a drive on the second hole during the first round of the PGA Championship golf tournament Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011, at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga.

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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Steve Stricker’s first few rounds around this beefed-up Atlanta Athletic Club hardly inspired confidence in the world’s No. 5 player. His prognosis was not good for this PGA Championship.

“I really felt like I was in trouble coming into this tournament,” Stricker said. “I really didn't feel that good on the course.”

So chalk it up to golf’s unpredictable ways that Stricker is leading the PGA Championship with a record-tying round. His 63 matches the lowest in major-championship history and gives him a two-stroke lead over his fellow Wisconsinite and good friend, Jerry Kelly.

Unlikely friends

Steve Stricker and Jerry Kelly are 1-2 at the PGA Championship. Golfweek Editor Jeff Babineau wrote about their unlikely friendship in 2009. Click here to read.

Stricker has won twice this season, and has 11 PGA Tour victories in his career. A major championship is one of the last things he’s looking to add to his resume. While those early-week practice rounds had Stricker searching, they inspired confidence in Kelly.

Like Stricker, Kelly will never be confused for a long bomber. But he’s seventh on Tour in driving accuracy. He discovered earlier this week that positioning will be key this week, in spite of the renovations that stretched Atlanta Athletic Club to 7,467 yards. Scott Verplank, another short-but-straight 40-something who played practice rounds with Stricker and Kelly, shot 67 Thursday.

“We saw that you really didn’t need to overpower this golf course, that position was the key,” Kelly said. “It certainly helped me.”

Stricker said several tees were moved up Thursday. Players could face the full brunt of Rees Jones’ renovations later this week. “They gave us some breaks today,” Stricker said. It helped that he had just 25 putts. He hit 9 of 14 fairways and 13 of 18 greens in regulation, as well. Stricker hasn’t had a top-10 at a major since the 2009 Masters.

Kelly’s 65 matches his best round in 105 major rounds (2nd round, 2005 PGA Championship). He’s made the cut in just two of his last 12 majors. In that span of 28 rounds, Kelly has shot in the 60s just once. Kelly has just two top-10s in 43 majors, both in 2007. Stricker wasn’t surprised by Kelly’s good play, though.

“He hit it great in the practice rounds,” Stricker said. “If I had money to wager, I was going to put some money on him to win the tournament.”

Kelly, after finishing 13th or better in three of his first five events this season, hasn’t had a top-25 since a third-place finish at The Honda Classic in March.

Stricker has been his usual consistent self this season. He won the Memorial and his third consecutive John Deere Classic, and has finished in the top-25 in 12 of 14 starts this season. He’s No. 5 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and could rise as high as No. 2 with a win here.

“There’s not much left for Steve Stricker to do,” Kelly said. “He got a pretty good start on it this week, and he’s going to be awfully tough.”

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