JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Without the benefit of a Tiger Woods, who still appears four cylinders shy of a full block, and a Phil Mickelson, whose golf has appeared more recreational of late, the year’s final major championship received an unexpected boost late into Sunday afternoon via an eclectic combo of fire and ice tea, with an assist from a hard-as-nails golf course that doled out pleasure and pain with equal abandon.
Fire, the golf world is rapidly learning, was the excitable Keegan Bradley; while Jason Dufner gamely played the part of flatliner until the bitter end at the 93rd PGA Championship.
And it all unfolded in 1 hour, 55 minutes. That’s how long it took for Bradley to make up five shots in just three holes and mow down decades of tradition. In order, the Tour rookie became the first player to hoist Grand Slam gold with a belly putter, a breakthrough that promises to send rules types into a tizzy, the first player since Ben Curtis to join the major club in his first Grand Slam start and the first to win a major the year after graduating from the Nationwide Tour.
“It seems like a dream and I'm afraid I'm going to wake up here in the next five minutes and it's not going to be real,” said Bradley, who closed with a 68 to tie Dufner at 8-under 272 and force overtime.
As he tapped in his clinching par putt at the 18th to clip Dufner by one stroke in a three-hole aggregate playoff Bradley smiled widely into the setting sun. It was a celebration that seemed so unlikely just two hours earlier.
Trailing Dufner by two strokes, Bradley’s 4-iron tee shot at the par-3 15th hole settled into the deep Bermuda grass rough and as his chip raced across the green and into the pond he appeared on his way to also-ran status.
“We got to the 16th tee and I told him to keep fighting,” said Bradley’s caddie, Steven “Pepsi” Hale. “But this guy is the gutsiest player I’ve ever worked for. I can’t teach heart and heart won this golf tournament.”
Well, heart and a steady putter that drained putts from 8 feet at No. 16 and 35 feet at the par-3 17th hole. Dufner took care of the rest.
How hard was Atlanta Athletic Club playing? When Dufner stepped to the 15th tee he was leading by four strokes and proceeded to fan his hybrid tee shot into the water behind Bradley. Before he took his drop he was leading by five, courtesy of a late bogey by Anders Hansen. Dufner scrambled for bogey at the 15th, wilted from a greenside bunker at the 16th, and three-putted the 17th to drop back into a tie with Bradley.
“The course is so tough that no lead is safe,” Bradley said. “I kept trying to tell myself that because I knew that that was the case, especially if you got a big lead, you might get a little tight coming down the end.”
That both players managed to par the closing hole showed an astonishing level of grit, but in the Hotlanta heat “Fire” was too much for the Auburn iceman. Bradley birdied the first extra hole and when Dufner three-putted the 17th green for the second time in 30 minutes not even the feared closer could change the outcome.
“I was thinking about trying to win the thing,” said Dufner (69) of his miscues at Nos. 15, 16 and 17. “They are tough holes. Everybody has struggled on them. It’s disappointing, (No.) 16, being in the middle of the fairway. I should hit that green. Didn’t. Probably one of the worst iron shots I hit all week.”
But then the frenzied playoff, the second consecutive overtime at the PGA, was almost a foregone conclusion considering how the day unfolded. Sunday’s final turn was a free-for-all in major championship clothing, with a dozen players within six strokes of the lead at the turn, including Robert Karlsson who teed off 40 minutes and five strokes outside the lead but closed with a 3 under front nine and a 10 footer for eagle at the 12th hole.
For 68 holes uncertainty ruled with the Wanamaker Trophy earmarked for cash compensations and a player to be named later, until the last four, “Calamity Lane” as one announcer dubbed the diabolical stretch, began dispatching all comers with ease. First it was Karlsson, who finished bogey-bogey-bogey, then Hansen, who bogeyed the 16th and finished alone in third place at 7 under.
Coming into Sunday Dufner was 3 under on the last four, Bradley was even par, but that changed dramatically as the rookie played the stretch in even par counting the three-hole playoff and Dufner limped home in 3 over.
The only thing missing was Woods.
On Wednesday Woods’ swing coach Sean Foley was cautiously optimistic, “What we have now is Tiger’s blueprint and getting his swing in the position where he can be himself – a creative artist, a feel player.”
Thursday morning Woods played his first five in 3 under, his last 13 in 10 over and hit the same number of bunkers (14) as he did fairways and greens combined. It was all enough to likely make Bryon Bell relieved his status on Woods’ bag was interim.
“I just thought, this is a major, and you peak for these events. And once you get to a major championship, you just let it fly, let it go. And I did and it cost me,” a frustrated Woods said.
The next time Woods resurfaces remains almost as much of a mystery as his game. His early exit from AAC guaranteed he’d miss the FedEx Cup playoffs and he offered a vague “I might” when asked if he’d play a Fall Series or European Tour event before November’s Australian Open, his next scheduled start.
The uncertainty doesn’t stop there, thanks to Rory McIlroy’s youthful actions adjacent the third fairway on Thursday. The injury the Ulsterman sustained when his 8-iron powered into a root seemed innocent enough, but as he closed with rounds of 70-73-74-74 and bolted Atlanta to spend time with his physical trainer there was a measure of concern.
In hindsight, Rory vs. the root probably wasn’t a risk worth taking, and the 22-year-old acknowledged as much. “Looking back on it, it probably wasn't the right thing to do.”
But even the specter of the game’s two biggest needle movers on equally uncertain paths wasn’t enough to rob “Glory’s Last Shot” of a dramatic finale thanks to Bradley.
The victory assured the 25-year-old membership in the game’s “young guns” club, if his victory earlier this year at the Byron Nelson Championship didn’t already gain him status. And his emotions on Sunday made him an instant classic with the sweet-stained masses. Not that Bradley has ever had a hard time showing his emotions.
“We’ve tried to temper that a little bit. It’s part of the learning curve. That was part of the dialogue this week after what happened at Firestone,” said Hale of Bradley’s tie for 15th following a closing 74 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “I told everybody that we are going to find out how much we learned last week.”
The answer surprised everyone, maybe even Bradley, and wrenched the PGA Championship out of a frenzied funk – just in time.
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