Who doesn't belong?


JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – At the exact same time in the middle of Friday afternoon, two men made the turn on opposites sides of the Atlanta Athletic Club.

If you didn’t know their identities, the juxtaposition would have been laughable.

One was well over par, easily on his way to missing the cut, but surrounded by mass amounts of bystanders craning their necks in an effort to witness the carnage. The other was climbing the leaderboard, midway through the best round of the day, and nary an observer was around to take notice.

The player scuffling along hasn’t won a tournament in two years, having been mired in an injury-riddled season that only saw him return to action one week ago. The guy without any fanfare has already won a tournament this season and is fresh off another title contention last week.

It made no sense at all.

Until you realize, of course, that the former was Tiger Woods – or at least a reasonable facsimile of the man who has won 14 major championships – and the latter was PGA Tour rookie Keegan Bradley, who couldn’t have been happier about the silence.

“I mean, it felt like a Hooters Tour event. It was great,” Bradley said after firing a 6-under 64. “It was a relaxing atmosphere.  It didn't feel like a major, to be honest with you.”

Not that he would know. The 93rd PGA Championship is Bradley’s first career major appearance and yet he’s tied for the 36-hole lead with Jason Dufner going into the weekend.

Go ahead. I’ll wait while you Google those guys and try to figure out if, well, this actually has turned into a Hooters Tour event by mistake.

Still waiting…

OK, trust me now? The truth is, Bradley and Dufner may not be Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler in their up-and-comer status, but they’re both very good ball-strikers and players who have put together impressive if not under-the-radar seasons so far this year.

The bigger story, though, is that major championships are no longer the domain of the one-named superstars. No longer can we explain the contenders simple by calling out “Tiger” or “Phil” or “Ernie” or “Vijay.” Instead, it’s “Keegan” and “Jason” and “D.A.” and “Scott.”

Even the guys who are established world-class players, like Jim and Steve – that would be Furyk and Stricker, obviously – aren’t exactly world-beaters. In the olden days – say, five or 10 years ago – experience was a virtue at the majors, but that isn’t the case any longer.

We already know that each of the last six major champions have been first-time winners. Chances are, No. 7 will be crowned on Sunday evening.

Entering the weekend, there is only one major title (Furyk) among the top 13 players on the leaderboard and three (Furyk, Davis Love III, Trevor Immelman) among the top 25.

All of which is just fine with the newbies.

“I'm sure it would be different if Phil was up there or those other guys,” Bradley admitted. “But not in a bad way. These guys are all great players. It's not like they've just kind of stumbled up there. They've been out here a long time. They're great players. They've contended in tournaments. D.A. Points won Pebble this year. They're great players, just like Phil and Tiger are. Probably tomorrow … will be a little more relaxing than if I was playing with Tiger or Phil, but they're great players.”

“There's a lot of good guys out here,” Dufner added. “That's one thing that I've learned – this is my sixth year out here – there's tons and tons of guys that can play golf out here. The networks and the media maybe focus on bigger names for a reason. That's who people want to see. People want to see Tiger Woods; people want to see Phil Mickelson. But there's other guys that can really, really play golf out here and that are really good that you've never heard of.”

While the masses may ridicule the current leaderboard as “Glory’s Last Potshot,” the standings going into the weekend mirror what we’ve seen taking place in this sport for many years. Fields are deeper than ever and the gap between No. 1 and No. 100 is smaller than ever.

Sure, big names like Tiger and Phil may move the needle, but the Q-rating of those in contention right now doesn’t necessarily stand for “quiet” or “quixotic.”

No, these are “quality” players and they’re proving it on the major championship stage once again – even if very few outside the ropes have been paying attention.