Kelly shares the lead with 2004 Ryder Cup performers American Jay Haas and Darren Clarke, from the victorious European Ryder Cup team. David Toms and Zach Johnson are tied for fourth place at 2-under-par 68.
World No. 1 Vijay Singh birdied the 17th hole to close out a round of 1-under-par 69. He shares sixth place with six other players. Meanwhile, former World No. 1 and current No. 3 Tiger Woods returned to action with a 2-over-par 72. He stands in a tie for 19th place at East Lake Golf Club.
The players faced some tough conditions at East Lake. The course played longer than normal after over an inch of rain soaked the course in the early morning hours. Then during the round, winds gusted across the course making shots difficult, even for the top players in the game.
Kelly got going with a birdie at the second after he dropped a 6-iron 6 feet from the cup. The 37-year-old chipped in for birdie at the eighth.
Around the turn, Kelly moved to 3 under with a birdie at the par-3 11th. The two-time winner then birdied the par-5 15th to move out in front at minus-4. However, he was unable to save par at the next hole to slip back to 3 under.
'You're out here to win, and I've gone the last two years without a win,' said Kelly. 'This year was really tough on me. Then you make it here and you step out here and you've got to say, 'Okay, you had a great year. You didn't win, you didn't really do everything you wanted to do, but accept it a little bit and enjoy the fact that you're here.' That's what I've done. It has taken a lot of the pressure off and I've kind of enjoyed it.'
Clarke got into red figures as he dropped in a birdie putt from 15 feet out at the third. He missed a 15-foot par putt at the next hole to slip back to even par.
The Ulsterman sank a 5-foot birdie putt at the sixth and came right back with a 10-foot birdie at the next hole. Clarke kept it going with a 25-foot birdie putt at the 12th.
He also got to minus-4 when he rolled in an 18-footer for birdie No. 14. Clarke dropped a shot at the 16th and parred his final two holes to share first place.
'When I drove up this morning the last thing I thought was that we'd be teeing off on time,' Clarke said. 'The course was a little bit wet out there as you would expect. I had a few mud balls, but everybody was going to have those today. Mine didn't go too far astray.'
Haas sank a 12-foot birdie try at three, but like Clarke stumbled to a bogey at four. The 50-year-old stuck an 8-iron within 6 feet of the cup at six to setup another birdie.
Haas moved to minus-2 when he drained a 12-foot birdie putt at the 11th. The Wake Forest alum faltered to a bogey at the 14th. He came right back by rolling in a 16-foot eagle putt from the fringe at 15 to get to 3 under. He closed with three straight pars to share the overnight lead.
'I played very well. I kept the ball in play most of the day, which you had to do out there, with the rough being wet and things like that, but the greens are holding,' said Haas, who on Wednesday was awarded the tour's Payne Stewart Award, given annually to a player who represents the ideals of the game. 'I would expect somebody will be lower than this today, even though it is windy.'
All three of the leaders are looking for their first win of the 2004 season.
Singh is joined at minus-1 by Mark Hensby, Mike Weir, Padraig Harrington, Stephen Ames, Stuart Appleby, John Daly and Steve Flesch.
Stewart Cink and U.S. Open champion Retief Goosen are tied at even-par 70. Sergio Garcia, Masters champion Phil Mickelson and Rory Sabbatini are one stroke further back at 1-over-par 71.
Woods is joined at plus-2 by Chris DiMarco, Carlos Franco, Todd Hamilton and Ernie Els. Els was so frustrated with his game that he broke his putter on the 16th hole and putted with his sand-wedge the last two holes.
Defending champion Chad Campbell stands in a tie for 24th place at 3-over-par 73. Davis Love III, the 1999 runner-up withdrew after 14 holes due to a shoulder injury.