JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Brendan Steele is playing in his first major championship. Jason Dufner has never won a PGA Tour event.
Hard to tell at the PGA Championship.
The no-names stayed cool on a sweltering Saturday at Atlanta Athletic Club, setting up a final round that will be short on recognizable faces but could end a major drought for the Americans. Steele shot 4-under 66 and was tied with Dufner, who joined him at 7-under 203 with a 68.
“It’s a great week for me just to be in the field,” Steele said. “To have a chance to actually win in my first major is really something special.”
Keegan Bradley, another guy playing in his first major, bounced back from a double bogey at the first hole for a 69 that left just one stroke back heading to the final round, another perfect fit for what is developing as the theme of the year’s final major.
Who are these guys anyway?
“Coming up to the final hole with the sun going down,” Bradley said, “that was kind of cool.”
Tiger Woods, defending PGA champion Martin Kaymer and several other stars are watching from home, failing to make the cut. U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy, who came into the week as the favorite, struggled to a 74 with his ailing wrist and won’t be a factor on Sunday.
Into the void stepped several Americans known only to the most ardent golf fans. But they’ve put the U.S. in position to capture its first major title since Phil Mickelson won the 2010 Masters. Since then, it’s an 0-for-6 drought, this country’s longest of the modern Grand Slam era.
The 34-year-old Dufner, who had not made a cut since late May, showed his moxie after a couple of three-putt bogeys knocked him out of the lead. He bounced back with a birdie at the 15th, the longest par-3 on the course, and made it two in a row by rolling in a 12-footer at the next hole.
He’s got the closest thing to a home-course advantage among the leaders – he lives about two hours away in Auburn, Ala., and is used to playing in the blistering heat and on Bermuda greens.
“Maybe I’m a little bit surprised to be in the final group at a major,” Dufner said. “But I’m not surprised to be playing well on this type of golf course.”
Steele, a 28-year-old Californian, birdied five of the first 10 holes, shaking off a double bogey at the seventh when he drove into a swale on the left, tried to putt it on and watched in dismay as the ball rolled back to his feet.
Bradley, the 25-year-old nephew of LGPA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, got off to a jittery start. He drove his first shot into a bunker, did the same with the second and wound up taking a double bogey-6. But he quickly steadied himself, dropping only one more shot with a bogey at the seventh on the way to a 204.
“That was a tough first hole, but I really calmed down after that,” he said. “It didn’t really bother me much at all. I played really well.”
There were some familiar names lurking near the top. Forty-seven-year-old Scott Verplank had two late birdies for a 69 and headed to the clubhouse at 205, his creaky body holding up in the heat. Steve Stricker, the top-ranked American in the world at age 44, was another stroke back after a 69 of his own.
Neither of the old-timers has won a major title. Maybe this will be their week.
“It feels great,” Verplank said. “I don’t feel a day older than a hundred.”
Jim Furyk was in the mix until he put two balls in the water at the 18th and took double bogey. The 73 dropped him to 209, a daunting six strokes off the lead. He was joined by the world’s top-ranked players, No. 1 Luke Donald (68) and No. 2 Lee Westwood (70).
Donald closed within a shot of the lead until a brutal finish. He drove into a bunker at the 18th and had no choice but to blast out into the fairway. Then, going at the flag a little too aggressively, he dunked his third shot in the water and wound up taking double bogey.
Masters champion Charl Schwartzel was at 208 after a 66, trying to win a second major title before the year is done.
“The course is just very penalizing,” the South African said. “I just played a little bit more – I want to say conservative maybe – but more clever. A few of the holes that were inviting me the first two rounds, I took with a bit more caution.”
David Toms, who won the PGA the last time it came to Atlanta in 2001, went even lower with a 65 and also was five shots back. He was sparked by a long eagle putt at the 12th, and followed with birdies at 13 and 14. He made another birdie at the tough closing hole after a 5-iron from 190 yards barely cleared the water.
“I thought I got it in there pretty tight,” Toms said. “But obviously, the way the crowd oohed and aahed up there, I was glad to get over the water.”
He won his only major title with a gutsy call at that same hole in 2001. Clinging to a one-shot lead over Phil Mickelson, Toms chose to lay up short of the water with his second shot. He knocked a wedge 12 feet from the hole and made the par putt to hold off Lefty.
Toms started feeling good vibes as he walked up to the 15th, where there’s a plaque marking his most memorable shot from 2001 – a hole-in-one.
“People were saying stuff in the crowd about doing it again, that kind of thing, and you flash black to this time, this week, 10 years ago,” he said. “A lot of memories for sure. The golf course is different. The golf course if much more demanding, so I have to play extremely well.”
Mickelson shot 69 but still had a lot of work to do, going to Sunday seven strokes off the lead.
McIlroy went the wrong way on Moving Day, but he did catch a break at the par-3 17th. His tee shot landed on a rock wall along the bunker, bounced at least 50 feet in the air and came down on the green. He smiled and made par.