JOHNS CREEK -- Steve Stricker isn’t one of the most exciting players on the PGA Tour.
The mild-mannered 44-year-old rarely shows emotion of the course and remains essentially unassuming despite being the top-ranked American in the game.
Stricker, however, put together one of the most exciting rounds in major championship history Thursday at the Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highland Course.
Stricker shot a 7-under-par 63 in the opening round of the PGA Championship to tie the lowest score in a major championship. His score tied Mark O’Meara for the course record.
Stricker joins a group of 22 others to shoot a 63 in a major. Rory McIlroy was the last to accomplish the feat when he posted a 63 in the first round of the 2010 British Open.
Stricker leads Jerry Kelly by two shots. Shaun Micheel, winner of the 2003 PGA Championship, is three shots behind, and Scott Verplank rounded out an All-American top four.
“I really felt like I was in trouble coming into this tournament,” said Stricker, who struggled making birdies during his practice rounds. “I really didn’t feel that good on the course.”
That feeling changed rather quickly Thursday morning when Stricker birdied his first three holes -- he started on No. 10. He later birdied the daunting 253-yard par-3 15th hole and the 18th hole to make the turn at 5 under. The final four holes are considered by many players to be among the toughest closing four holes at any major championship course.
“That’s like stealing probably three, four shots from the field there,” Stricker said. “It’s a tough stretch. That probably set up the whole round, just getting through that stretch and making a couple of birdies.”
Stricker birdied No. 1 and No. 5 to get to 7 under. He missed a birdie putt from 10 feet on No. 9 that would have broken the major championship scoring record.
“(The record) really never registered,” Stricker said. “I was just trying to make a birdie and finish 8 under, and I was really concentrating on the putt but never thought about the history part of it.”
Only five players -- Johnny Miller, Greg Norman, Raymond Floyd, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods -- have gone on to win a major after shooting a 63. Woods last accomplished the feat at the 2007 PGA Championship.
Stricker has 11 PGA Tour wins, but he still seeks an elusive major win. He finished second in the 1999 PGA Championship and has two fifth-place finishers at the Masters.
“Everybody still considers it only a matter of time (until he wins a major),” Kelly said. “I think he’s been plagued by tough starts, a couple of bad waves, things like that. But I think he got a pretty good start on it this week, and he’s going to be awfully tough.”
Kelly, who also started on the back nine, got to 3 under through four holes in his round. He added two birdies on the front side to finish 5 under. Kelly has missed the cut in his two majors this season and has just two top 10s this season.
Micheel’s lone PGA Tour victory came in that 2003 PGA Championship win at Oak Hill Country Club. He hasn’t finished in the top 20 in any of his 21 starts on tour this year.
Two of the biggest stories Thursday at Atlanta Athletic Club had little to do with the leaders.
Woods made his return to major championship golf after missing the U.S. Open and British Open with a knee injury.
He briefly led the PGA Championship in the morning after birdies on three of his first five holes. His round spiraled out of control, however, and he finished with a 77.
U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy jammed his right wrist against a root during a swing early in his afternoon round. McIlroy played through the pain and birdied two straight holes following the injury. He finished the round at even part with his right wrist and arm taped like a heavyweight boxer.
McIlroy said planned to play through the pain the rest of the tournament provided there is no risk for further injury.