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Steve Stricker sets record pace

Steve Stricker equalled the lowest round in a major to take control of the PGA Championship on Thursday while fellow American Tiger Woods spectacularly self-destructed after making a red-hot start.

The 44-year-old Stricker, who has yet to win one of golf’s grand slam events, fired a flawless seven-under-par 63 on a sweltering, sun-baked day at Atlanta Athletic Club to grab a two-shot lead.

American hopes of a first major victory since Phil Mickelson won last year’s Masters were given a further lift with Jerry Kelly next best after carding a six-birdie 65, ahead of compatriots Shaun Micheel (66) and Scott Verplank (67).

Former world number one Woods, however, posted his worst ever opening round in a major as he imploded on the way to a 77 after making three birdies in his first five holes.

“I’m not down, I’m really angry right now so there’s a lot of words I could use,” four-times PGA champion Woods, who has not won a tournament in two years, told reporters after recording three double-bogeys and ending up in 12 bunkers.

Stricker, long regarded as one of the best putters in the game, birdied five of his first nine holes and picked up two more shots after the turn to become the 23rd player to shoot a 63 in a major.

The world number five came close to an eighth birdie of the day at the par-four ninth, his final hole, and a first-ever 62 in a major after hitting a superb approach to 12 feet.

However, he pushed his first putt past the right edge of the cup and had to settle for a two-putt par.

“I was just trying to make a birdie and finish at eight under,” Stricker, an 11-times PGA Tour winner, said. “I really was concentrating on the putt but never thought about the history part of it.

“I wish I would have been able to make that putt to be one better than that group of guys, but 63 is a heck of a start. One round under my belt, take tomorrow as it comes and go from there.”

Kelly’s 65 matched his lowest ever score in the majors and he was delighted to occupy the top of the leaderboard with fellow Wisconsin native Stricker.

“We played practice rounds the last couple of days, and we saw that you really didn’t need to overpower this golf course, that position was the key,” the 44-year-old Kelly said.

“We took a lot of comfort in coming to a longer golf course that you don’t really have to explode on every shot.”

Perhaps the bravest round of the day came from U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, who carded a level-par 70 despite playing the last 15 holes with an injured right wrist.

The 22-year-old Northern Irishman struck a tree root on his downswing from the left rough at the par-four third, losing control of his club as he injured his forearm and wrist.

However he continued to play on in discomfort and pain, repeatedly receiving medical attention and eventually having his right forearm strapped up for extra support.

“If it is the same tomorrow and I know that I’m not going to do any more damage to it, then I’ll play,” McIlroy said of Friday’s second round.

“It’s the last major of the year and I’ve got six or seven months to the Masters, so I might as well try and play through the pain and get it over and done with.”

Australian Adam Scott, winner of last week’s WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, returned a 69 while British world number one Luke Donald opened with a 70.

However several players struggled on the par-70 layout with its abundance of bunkers and water hazards, especially over the daunting four-hole stretch from the tricky par-three 15th.

The day’s average score was 73.109 and Japanese teenager Ryo Ishikawa, who came close to becoming the PGA Tour’s youngest winner in 100 years at Firestone on Sunday, found water six times on his way to a dispiriting 85.

Most eyes, however, were firmly fixed on world number 30 Woods competing in only his second tournament since returning from three months on the sidelines due to leg injuries.

A glorious morning began well for him as he birdied his opening hole after teeing off at the par-four 10th with huge galleries lining both sides of the fairway.

He struck a superb approach to 15 feet and calmly rolled in the curling putt as several fans shouted out: “Go in, go in.”

Woods, wearing a bright pink shirt and black trousers, gave a restrained right fist pump in celebration before another fan yelled: “He’s back.”

The 35-year-old also birdied the par-five 12th, where he got up and down from a greenside bunker, and the par-four 14th, after his second shot ended up just four feet from the cup.

However, his round then fell apart as his remodelled swing began to switch back to old habits.

He dumped his tee shot into water at the difficult par-three 15th on the way to a double-bogey, bogeyed 16 and also double-bogeyed 18 to reach the turn in two-over.

Further bogeys followed at the first, second and fourth before he found sand off the tee at the par-four sixth and water with his second shot on the way to another double.

His misery was completed with a bogey on his final hole.

“I was three under early, and I said, ‘You know what, every shot I hit up to that point were all mechanical thoughts’.

“I put the club in a certain position, and I was doing that and I said, ‘You know what, I’m feeling good. Let’s just let it go’. And it cost me the whole round,” Woods said.

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