JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Admit it: If you were told at the beginning of the week that the 93rd PGA Championship would come down to a playoff between Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner, you would have planned a Sunday afternoon escape route. Maybe play 36 at the local muni or get caught up on that honey-do list or start studying Swahili. Anything to avoid watching what sounds like a glorified Nationwide Tour leaderboard unfold at a major.
You would have missed one hell of a final round.
There was Dufner looking like the second coming of Ben Hogan for most of the day, placidly hitting fairways and greens with all the emotion of a guy playing a Tuesday morning pro-am in Dubuque. There was Bradley dipping into Jean Van de Velde territory with his ill-fated triple-bogey on the brutal 15th hole.
And that was just the beginning.
Bradley turned things around, posting birdies on two of his last three holes, and Dufner inexplicably imploded, parlaying a five-shot lead into a two-man playoff. Each player showed tremendous guile and determination in extra holes, but it was Bradley – a 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie – who prevailed in the end, becoming just the third player in the past century to win in his first major championship appearance.
That’s right. A rookie knocked off a guy who can best be described as rank-and-file – and it just may have been the best tournament of the year.
If we learned anything at Atlanta Athletic Club, it’s that drama doesn’t check nametags in the underwear. The venerable Golf Gods don’t place entertainment value merely on the inclusion of certain one-named superstars, instead serving up goosebumps without prior warning.
“There's a lot of good players out here,” Dufner explained afterward, his voice cracking from grief. “These fields are deep. A lot of guys can play. There are new names coming out that people should be excited about. It's not all about everybody you see on TV. There's a lot of guys that can really play and they are going to play really good golf for a long time out here.”
In other sports, the unknown is celebrated, from the 1980 Olympic hockey team to Buster Douglas to the George Mason men’s basketball team that reached the Final Four. Since the wild-card system was implemented in Major League Baseball, four such teams have won the World Series. Just last year, the Green Bay Packers were the sixth and final seed in the NFC playoffs, but won the Super Bowl.
For whatever reason, underdogs are met with scorn in golf. Jack Fleck? A fluke. Larry Mize? No prize. Even for the Davids who didn’t beat Goliath. Bob May? No way.
Entering the final round of this PGA Championship, it seemed that everybody was ready to play the Blame Game in conjuring excuses for the lack of familiar faces on the leaderboard that not only included Bradley and Dufner, but the likes of Brendan Steele, Anders Hansen and Scott Verplank. All talented players, but let’s face it – they don’t pass the grandmother test, which is to say, your grandma’s never heard of ‘em and couldn’t pick ‘em out of a lineup.
Maybe the no-names were Rees Jones’ fault, his dastardly redesign of the Highlands Course leveling the playing field to the extent that nobody held an advantage. Maybe it was the PGA of America’s fault, setting up the course so long and fierce that the world’s best had their talents negated. Maybe it was Mother Nature’s fault, her scorching temps melting away the elite players.
The truth is, it was nobody’s fault, because there was no blame to be had. Instead, we should be crediting the aforementioned parties for showcasing a theater that provided a thrill ride, both of the positive variety and the negative.
The treacherous final four holes – call ‘em Rees Jones’ Locker, because so many golf balls found their watery grave – were panned by players and caddies alike for being too quirky and possibly even unfair, but they equated to excitement personified. It was a stretch included all the bumpiness of a wooden roller coaster ride, with just as much queasiness, too.
This may not be remembered as the day that changed everything when it comes to judging tournaments based on name recognition, but it should serve as yet another reminder that drama can be uncovered even in the unlikeliest of situations.
“Everybody out here is so good now,” Bradley said afterward, the Wanamaker Trophy glistening just a few feet away. “From the last guy in to the first guy can win.”
If you glanced at the leaderboard on Sunday morning and decided to play golf or pare down the honey-do list or even work on that Swahili, you missed quite a show. And if you watched, well, you’ll forever remember that entertainment doesn’t come in direct correlation to star power.