ATLANTA – Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner atop the leaderboard in Atlanta should sound familiar.
Only this was the FedEx Cup finale, not the final major of the year.
And they were on East Lake, not 40 minutes up the road at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Bradley, who won the PGA Championship last month in a playoff over Dufner, ran off four birdies on the back nine Thursday for a 6-under 64 to build a two-shot lead in the Tour Championship.
Dufner was surprisingly crooked off the tee, yet still managed a 66 and was tied for second along with Chez Reavie and Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world and one of five players in prime position to win the $10 million FedEx Cup bonus.
Bradley and Dufner will be in the last group Friday, and it was impossible to ignore the coincidence.
“Yeah, I don’t think there’s any big surprise,” Bradley said. “He likes this grass, too. He likes these courses, and I hope I get to play with him tomorrow. I think that would be a lot of fun.”
It would bring back great memories for Bradley, a 26-year-old rookie. Not so much for Dufner, who had a four-shot lead with three holes to play until he made three straight bogeys and wound up losing in a three-hole playoff.
“Maybe he’s having some of the same feelings – very comfortable on this type of golf course … with the conditions maybe a little more severe at Atlanta Athletic Club off the tee,” Dufner said. “But he’s having a good day. Hopefully, we’ll be paired tomorrow. That will be a little interesting, I guess. Maybe some thoughts here or there will come back and forth.”
The Tour Championship is more about memories, however.
Along with this being the end of the FedEx Cup, there’s another cup on Bradley’s mind. He is not a lock to be a captain’s pick for the Presidents Cup, despite having won twice this year, including a major. U.S. captain Fred Couples has said he would consider the Tour Championship as one last audition.
Bradley could not have asked for a better start.
He holed a bunker shot from across the green on his second hole to fire up the fans, most of whom now know his name. After a sloppy three-putt bogey on the eighth, he hammered a 3-wood from 281 yards that rolled past the hole at No. 9 and set up a two-putt birdie, then really put it together on the back nine. He had a pair of short birdie putts, along with a two-putt birdie on the 15th and was feeling the good vibes from a month ago.
He is a long shot to win the FedEx Cup – especially with Donald playing well – but the Presidents Cup is right in front of him, and Bradley feels it.
“The cliche is to say that I’m not thinking about it, but literally probably every third hole – or maybe even less – it pops into my mind,” Bradley said. “I really want to be on the team, but I want to earn my way onto the team, just like I’m going to have to. If the captain and assistant captains think I’ve done enough to get on the team, they’re going to pick me.
“And if they don’t, that’s totally fair, too.”
The conditions at East Lake were relatively tame until the final hour, when sprinkles turned to rain and even halted play with the final two groups not finished. Donald returned to play the 18th in a driving rain, and did well to escape with par from the bunker on the par-3 closing hole.
Charles Howell III, whose appearance at East Lake guarantees another trip back to Georgia in April for the Masters in his hometown, was at 67 along with Adam Scott, Hunter Mahan, Jason Day and Matt Kuchar.
The group at 68 included another batch of Presidents Cup hopefuls, from Aaron Baddeley on the International team to Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker on the American side.
Phil Mickelson also shot a 68 and is on Bradley’s side – not because he wants him as a captain’s pick, but because they appear to share an affinity for golf in Georgia. Mickelson has won the Tour Championship twice at East Lake, along with three Masters and three regular PGA Tour stops in the Atlanta area.
Webb Simpson, No. 1 in the FedEx Cup, bogeyed the last hole for a 69. Of the top five players in the FedEx Cup – all of whom only need to win to collect the $10 million – Dustin Johnson (No. 2) was the only player not to break par. He shot 70.
Luke Donald said he was thinking more about the silver FedEx Cup than the crystal Tour Championship trophy when he arrived at East Lake “because that’s what everyone is talking about.”
He also got off to a good start, important to him because he opened with a 75 last week at Cog Hill and took himself out of the tournament. Donald still managed to finish fourth.
“I wanted to get off to a faster start, put myself in better position, and I’m glad I did that,” Donald said.