JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – A week that began with the promise of colossal comebacks, Chubby Slams and youthful coronations has been reduced to a pop quiz that no one could have prepared for.
In order, Sunday’s second-to-last two-ball will feature a player whose next major will be his second and a 47-year-old miracle of modern medicine; followed 10 minutes later by the day’s final tee time that has collected just a single PGA Tour title, combined.
From the ashes of great expectations comes the unpredictability of obscurity.
If Sunday’s marquee leaves middle America wanting for name tags and thumbnail bios, the uncertainty of it all promises to fill the void with a measure of anticipation.
Your 54-hole front-runners are Auburn’s Jason Dufner, whose most meaningful trip to Atlanta was last year’s Southeastern Conference championship game, and Brendan Steele, who compared Glory’s Last Shot to his victory at last year’s Nationwide Tour Championship – really, he did – and is playing his first major.
In Steele’s defense, you can’t win 18 majors without winning your first.
“You can only want something so much,” the 28-year-old figured. “I really wanted to win the Nationwide Tour Championship and (this year’s Texas Open), so it’s not that different.”
For those in search of more familiarity, or perspective, the leaderboard at the 93rd PGA Championship offers precious few outlets. Keegan Bradley, a rookie like Steele, and veteran Scott Verplank will begin the final round one and two strokes back, respectively; and the top 12 players have a combined two majors.
“It feels great,” said Verplank , who has been slowed this year by a wrist injury. “I don’t feel a day over 100.”
Those who run major championships like to say they identify the week’s best player. Chances are Sunday’s champion will just need to be identified for the general golfing public.
That’s not to say the PGA leaderboard is entirely void of needle movers. Steve Williams . . . eh, Adam Scott begins the final turn five back at 2 under, tied with David Toms, the 2001 champion here at AAC who posted a round-of-the-day 65, and Steve Stricker, the leader in the clubhouse for Player of the Year, is just three behind.
But it is not who remains so as much as it is how they finish. The dearth of major experience combined with the toughest closing stretch of holes this side of Barry Burn make no lead or leader, no matter how nondescript, safe.
Consider Jim Furyk’s misadventures on Saturday. Just two strokes back through 13 holes, the former U.S. Open champion bogeyed No. 14, rinsed his tee shot at the downhill 15th hole and dunked two into the water at the finale. For the record, he played his last four in three splashes.
It is a story that has been told ad nauseam this week on the par-4 18th hole. It’s an old tale by now, boy meets hole, hole dropkicks boy, boy walks off course shaking his head and counting ’em up like an 18 handicap.
“There’s nowhere to hit the ball off the tee and the bunkers are virtually unplayable (at No. 18),” said Stricker, one of the lucky ones who stole a par at the last after hitting his drive into a fairway bunker. “It’s a better par 5 than a par 4 and I play it like that. I don’t mind laying up.”
In many ways it is why this week’s leaderboard looks more like the Atlanta Classic than the PGA Championship. Through three rounds the golf course is the week’s only lasting star, for better or worse.
As a general rule, pros don’t like to putt for pars. They are not fans of three-shot par 4s, driveable par 3s or no-shot bunkers. So it was no surprise that the sweat-stained field has marched off Atlanta Athletic Club with something just short of disdain for the Highlands track.
And this goes well beyond Phil Mickelson’s aversion for Rees Jones’ handiwork on the Hotlanta gem. The field has done more scrambling on the 18th hole this week than a third-string Redskins quarterback, and late Saturday the only safe bet was that whoever emerges from the sizzling scrum will play the closer just like Toms did when he won in 2001.
Just like Steele did on Saturday.
Despite his lack of Grand Slam pedigree the man of Steele showed impressive moxie coming down the stretch on Saturday with two-putt pars from 50 and 60 feet at Nos. 16 and 17, respectively. And when his drive flew into the third bunker down the right side of the finishing hole he calmly laid up, pitched to 20 feet and took his bogey – the way God and Rees Jones intended.
Whether Brendan Steele and Jason Dufner do, as golf writing legend Dan Jenkins once penned, what Brendan Steeles and Jason Dufners do on a Sunday at a major, which is to say wilt like bent grass in the August sun, remains to be seen. What is certain, it will be the golf course that ultimately wins this contest.