Don’t act too surprised with the names on the leaderboard at the PGA Championship going into Sunday’s final round at Atlanta Athletic Club. In a season where there have been eleven first-time winners on the PGA Tour, we should be used to seeing fresh faces and relatively unknown pros in contention. It’s no longer the usual suspects each week — Tiger, Phil, Ernie or Vijay.
Welcome to the new era in golf where parity is the name of the game.
But this is a major! Well, the last six major champs were all first-time winners — starting with Graeme McDowell at the ’10 US Open to Darren Clarke at the ’11 Open Championship.
At the final and fourth major of the year, Brendan Steele and Jason Dufner share the lead going into Sunday with a 54-hole total of seven-under. Then there’s Keegan Bradley, followed by Scott Verplank and Steve Stricker, both veterans who have had successful careers, though they’ve yet to claim a major. Other names in the top ten: Anders Hansen, D.A. Points, David Toms, Charl Schwartzel, Robert Karlsson, Adam Scott, John Senden. (Just watch, someone who has flown under the radar is going to win, like Hansen.)
Among those 13 players, only two have won majors — Charl Schwartzel captured the Masters in April and David Toms won the ’01 PGA Championship when it was last played at AAC.
When the new faces popped up on the leaderboard on Friday, most figured they’d implode under the immense pressure of leading a major. Nope, they embraced it and hit great golf shots to stay in contention.
Dufner has never won on the PGA Tour, while rookies Bradley and Steele, both playing in their first major this week, captured their maiden victories at the HP Byron Nelson Championship and the Valero Texas Open, respectively. Dufner has the most playing experience among the three, joining the PGA Tour in 2004. He’s played in 10 majors, with his best finish a tie for fifth at the PGA last year.
Yet, they’re handling the spotlight on the grand stage just fine.
Despite starting the day with a double-bogey on the first hole, Bradley, who was playing in the last pairing, managed to regroup and settled down to shoot one-under 69. Dufner plodded along, making six pars, until he birdied the 7th.
From what I saw today, Bradley and Dufner stayed aggressive and aimed at the tucked pins. What’s more impressive is they pulled off the shots. And when they made mistakes, they scrambled to save par or rallied to birdie the next hole.
Dufner three-putted the 14th, but then rolled in consecutive birdies on 15 and 16 on Saturday to retake the lead.
The final four holes have caused players to shudder when they reach the nightmarish, difficult stretch. The field has played them 1.315 strokes over par. The top five have managed to survive what’s been called “Calamity Lane,” avoiding major blow-ups.
54-hole co-leader Dufner has played 15-18 at three-under and Bradley is even par in that stretch. Stricker is one-under and Scott Verplank is even par. Only co-leader Brendan Steele is over par, but only one.
Interestingly enough, the big names and the veterans are the ones making rookie mistakes coming down the stretch — Luke Donald laid up on 18, but still dumped one in the water. Lee Westwood double-bogeyed the 14th. Adam Scott three-putted from three feet on the 15th. Jim Furyk dumped two in the water on 18 and posted a double-bogey. Phil Mickelson made a few silly mistakes and posted bogeys on 15 and 18 (according to his manager, the heat got to Phil, who declined interview with the press after spending his customary 20 minutes in the scoring trailer).
Who knows what tomorrow will bring, but I sense an exciting final round. Can Dufner, Bradley and Steele continue to keep their nerves in check? Same goes for Verplank and Stricker, who wouldn’t mind getting rid of the best-American-without-a-major moniker.
Will one of the favorites, like world No. 1 Luke Donald, world No. 2 Lee Westwood or last week’s champ Adam Scott, catch fire and come from behind to take the Wanamaker Trophy? Masters champ Charl Schwartzel is a potential contender, too — he may just birdie the last four holes to win (again)! Toms could turn back the clock to 2001 and win again at AAC. And finally, seven of the top eight are Americans, which means there’s a great chance to break the U.S. drought at the majors.
It’s all within the realm of possibility.
“It could be a good thing,” Dufner said of his own lack of experience, along with Steele’s and Bradley’s. “Might maybe make me a little more relaxed knowing that everybody is kind of in the same boat, struggling with those emotions and thoughts and the mentality of trying to win a major.”
(Photos by Kyle Auclair/Insidetheropes.com)