Keegan Bradley won the 93rd PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club Sunday. Yes, that Keegan Bradley. The tour rookie collected his second win this season and became the third player in the last century (joining Francis Ouimet and Ben Curtis) to win the first major championship in which he competed. The victory also elevated him to number 29 in the OWGR (official world golf ranking), four spots higher than Tiger Woods.
This tournament revealed the parity that has developed in men’s golf in the post-Tiger era. Bradley beat Jason Dufner, the 34 year old journeyman still looking for his first Tour win, in a three hole playoff. For most of the weekend, the top of the leader-board looked like a Nationwide Tour event as both men sought a career-defining victory.
Fortunately the duel ended a tired storyline that had developed throughout the major season: the nadir of American golf. No American had won a major championship in the last six contests, the longest stretch since the Masters became a major in the 1930s. Phil Mickelson was the last Yank to hoist a major championship trophy when he won at Augusta in April 2010.
Pundits wondered when the young guns (Anthony Kim, Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson, Hunter Mahan) would break through. They speculated about the health and fortitude of aging American stars (Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker). Mostly they noted Europe’s (as Graeme McDowell, Martin Kaymer, Rory McIlroy and Darren Clarke became major champions and Luke Donald and Lee Westwood rose to number 1 and 2 in the OWGR while Europe retook the Ryder Cup) rise coinciding with America’s decline.
Late Sunday afternoon it became apparent that the streak would end. Jason Dufner looked unbeatable through the first 14 holes. He put on a ball-striking clinic as he hit seemingly every fairway and green with his patented fade. Keegan Bradley was right on his tail, but his scorecard was littered with birdies and bogeys. Every time he seemed to get on a roll, an ill-timed shot would thwart his momentum.
Bradley came to the long par 3 15th hole just out of the lead. His tee shot was just off the green, in some nasty rough. He had a delicate chip with water behind the flag. Bradley proceeded to hit his second into the water. Five minutes later he walked off the green with a triple-bogey six, his hopes seemingly dashed.
From the tee, Dufner looked on and knew he had his largest lead of the afternoon. He was five clear of the field. Then he proceeded to his worst shot of the day. A pushed 3 iron found the water. But Dufner composed himself, got his wedge shot within 15 feet and drained the bogey putt. He looked to have the championship won. Against anyone else he probably would have.
Keegan Bradley showed grit, determination, and resolve throughout the weekend. In the final pairing Saturday, he opened with a double bogey, 6. It looked like the pressure had gotten to him. One figured he’d quickly fade away as the round continued. He proceeded to birdie three of the next five holes, shot a 69, and put himself in the penultimate pairing Sunday.
Time was running out on Bradley after his 15th hole implosion. He had only three holes to recover.
He made the most of it. Playing the most difficult stretch of the golf course, he birdied 16, made a forty footer for birdie on the 17th, and safely parred the treacherous finishing hole.
Dufner went the other way. He made bogey from the middle of the fairway on 16, and three putted 17 to drop another shot. Just like that, he had squandered his lead. He righted the ship at the 18th, secured his par, and found himself in a 3 hole play-off.
The play-off proved anti-climatic. Bradley grabbed a two shot lead over the first two holes. Dufner made things interesting on the last with a birdie three. But Bradley’s second was inside Dufner’s—he hit his third to a foot and tapped in for a par 4.
Two and a half years after competing on the Hooters Tour, Keegan Bradley is a major champion. Golf fans saw him handle tough conditions when he won the wind-swept Byron Nelson Championship (with a higher score than at the PGA) in May. They saw him handle adversity and an emotional roller coaster over the weekend in Atlanta.
The mental game in golf separates the have from the have nots. If you put Bradley on the range with Dustin Johnson or Anthony Kim, you wouldn’t think he had better game than his talented (and much talked about) contemporaries. Sunday Bradley displayed maturity and mental toughness that have so-far eluded other young guns. Under the heat of major championship Sunday he delivered under pressure, handled adversity and responded to mistakes by birdieing the next hole.
Bradley’s triumph showed the depth of today’s professional game. Anyone in the field can win any given week. That’s a throw away line, but Tour play in 2011 has shown it to be true.
Parity has produced a wealth of new talent, fresh faces, and compelling storylines: from Schwartzel’s run atAugusta, to McIlroy’s route at Congressional, to Clarke’s triumph atSandwich. Golf has never been more unpredictable.