Stricker surges to PGA lead with brilliant start

August 11, 2011 - 1:30 PM
PGA Championship Golf

Tiger Woods reacts after a shot on the 11th hole during the first round of the PGA Championship golf tournament Thursday, Aug. 11, 2011, at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Ga. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. (AP) — Steve Stricker has never won one of golf's biggest championships, and the Americans are mired in their longest major drought of the modern era.

Maybe Stricker will take care of both in one week.

He surely won't have to worry about Tiger Woods, who returned to the major scene with a major thud.

The 44-year-old Stricker got off to a brilliant start at the PGA Championship on Thursday, posting a 5-under 30 on the tough back nine after teeing off at the 10th.

Amazingly, the Wisconsin native made birdies at both the 15th — the longest par-3 on the course — and the 18th, a lengthy par-4 that has water hugging the left side of the fairway and guarding the front of the green.

Stricker made the turn and quickly added another birdie at the first, taking his score to 6 under. He was three strokes ahead of Jerry Kelly and Alexander Noren.

Stricker has finished in the top 10 at all four majors, but never better than a runner-up showing at the 1998 PGA Championship. Overall, he's 0-for-52 in the top events.

The Americans sure need a boost. They haven't won a major since Phil Mickelson triumphed at the 2010 Masters, coming up short at six in a row. During that span, Northern Ireland has captured three championships, South Africa two and Germany one.

Stricker is the highest-ranked American in the world rankings, a spot that used to be controlled by Woods.

Not anymore.

Fully recovered from a leg injury that caused him to miss both the U.S. Open and the British Open, Woods got off to a strong start, even grabbing a share of the lead early in the round at Atlanta Athletic Club.

Then Bad Tiger showed up again.

Woods wiped out three early birdies — and then some — with three double bogeys, his ball landing in water and sand as much as on grass. It was the sort of erratic play that has kept him winless in the majors for more than three years.

Like Stricker, Woods started on the back side. Their results were much different.

Woods birdied his first hole by driving into the fairway — no guarantee these days — and rolling in an 18-foot putt. He put his name at the top of the board with two more birdies at the 12th and the 14th, the latter resulting from a massive drive, then an approach that spun back within 3 feet of the flag.

Then, trouble at the 253-yard 15th, the over-the-top par 3 that is both long and protected by water.

Woods went with an iron but turned away as soon he hit the tee shot, the ball plopping into the pond that runs along the right side of the hole. He wound up making the first of his double bogeys.

At the 16th, a wild drive led to more problems. Woods landed in a fairway bunker to the right, knocked his approach into the gallery on the left, flopped it into another bunker and settled for a bogey.

Woods took another double bogey at the brutal 18th after plugging his tee shot in, yes, another bunker. He could only gouge it out, found more sand with his third shot and failed to get up-and-down from there.

His momentum totally stymied by a 2-over 37 at the turn, Woods staggered toward the finish. He started the front side with three more bogeys in the first four holes, then dunked another ball in the water at the sixth to set up his third double bogey on an increasingly sweltering day in the Deep South.

Temperatures were expected to be in the low 90s, with the humidity making it feel more like the 100s.

Woods was 6 over with two holes to play, looking as though his main goal will be avoiding his worst score ever at the PGA Championship — 75.

At least Woods was faring better than Japanese star Ryo Ishikawa, thought to be a contender coming off a strong showing at Firestone last week. The 19-year-old should've brought his swimsuit, putting six balls in the water and finishing with an 85 — pretty much assured of missing the cut before much of the field even got on the course.

Dustin Johnson was one of those teeing off in the afternoon, looking to make up for a gaffe on the 72nd hole that cost him a chance to win last year's PGA.

Johnson actually went to the final hole at Whistling Straits with a one-stroke lead and still appeared headed to a three-way playoff after making bogey. But PGA of America officials ruled that he grounded his club in a ragged patch of dirt that was actually a bunker after driving far right of the fairway.

He had to assess himself a two-stroke penalty, which left Martin Kaymer to beat Bubba Watson for the Wanamaker Trophy.

Everyone raved about the condition of the 7,467-yard course in the sprawling suburbs northeast of Atlanta, which was the home club of Bobby Jones and had hosted three previous majors.

But a baffling mishap the evening before — mowers gone wild? — left two ugly patches in the 14th and 17th greens.

Apparently, a quick rise in the humidity caused the brushes on two movers to stick in the grass, ripping the impeccable greens. Head groundskeeper Ken Mangum had to bring in sod for a quick patch job and the PGA of America ruled that the affected areas would be treated as ground under repair, allowing golfers to move their ball if it landed there or they had to putt through it.

"We felt like our hearts had been ripped out," Mangum said. "It's a little bit like cutting yourself with a razor on your wedding day."

He said the greens would be trimmed with hand mowers the rest of the week and it shouldn't effect play.

"We're still maintaining the same speed we had," Mangum said.

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