As many predicted, the PGA Championship on Sunday boiled down to the final fearsome four holes at Atlanta Athletic Club, also known as “Calamity Lane” as Phil Mickelson dubbed. Well, the finish was even more thrilling than we expected.
The difficult, cruel quartet delivered drama, heartbreak and guts — the essentials to an unforgettable ending at the year’s fourth and final major, especially when the leaderboard was filled mostly with unknowns and 40-somethings.
We have Keegan Bradley to thank for providing a comeback to remember at a PGA that until the last hour or so seemed like it would turn out to become rather uninspiring and forgettable, particularly given the theatrics and likable champions in the season’s first three majors.
The 25-year-old rookie, who captured his first PGA Tour victory at the Byron Nelson Championship in May, staged one of the most incredible rallies in history to tie Jason Dufner in regulation, and then win a three-hole playoff to take home the Wanamaker Trophy in his first-career major start, making him only the third player to achieve such a feat — the other two are Ben Curtis at the 2003 British Open and Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open.
Bounceback Is Key to Victory
Bradley had a little help from Dufner’s mistakes, albeit it was the St. Johns grad’s unbelievable fight that produced a deserving win. His clutch putting with the Odyssey XG Sabertooth Mid belly — making him the first player to win a major wielding one (Angel Cabrera won the’ 09 Masters with a “longer” putter, but not a belly or broomstick) — turned the momentum back in his favor and quelled the spirits of the seemingly unflappable Dufner (well, for the first 14 holes on Sunday).
Just after I ducked under the ropes on the par-3 259-yard 15th, Bradley, who was nine-under at the time, hit a 4-iron, which took a hard bounce on the left-center portion of the green and ended up in the tricky Bermuda rough between two bunkers. With a front-right pin placement, Keegan faced a tough, slippery chip running away from him and toward the water hazard. He also had a terrible lie and caught a flier, hitting it more right than he had intended.
“It was sitting down (in the Bermuda rough) as far as I’d seen all week,” said his caddie, Steven “Pepsi” Hale.
Bradley walked back up the hill to the drop area, 90 yards away, and knocked it tight, but missed the short putt for double-bogey and walked to the 16th tee with a triple-bogey six. Ouch. He now trailed Dufner by five shots. Surely, it was over, right? Not so fast. (As I mentioned in the live-blog all week, when Keegan makes a mistake, he gets fired up and usually responds with a birdie.)
Dufner waited on the 15th tee and watched Bradley’s blow-up. Instead of closing out the tournament, the 34-year-old journeyman went into panic mode and dunked his tee-shot in the water (or as legendary sportswriter Dan Jenkins tweeted, “remembered he was Jason Dufner).
“I remember walking off that green going, you know, the last four holes are so tough here that somebody could have a five-shot lead — it doesn’t matter,” said Bradley in his post-victory presser at AAC. “I just tried to steady myself on the tee and I hit the best drive of the week on 16. I absolutely hammered it. I only had 153 yards to the pin and that’s the least I’ve had by 20 yards.”
With all the carnage we’ve seen on the last four holes, no lead was safe. Maybe seven strokes, I’d joke — which turned out to be pretty accurate.
Never, Never, Never Give Up
While Pepsi couldn’t speak for Keegan, he heard Dufner’s splash on 15 before they reached the 16th tee.
“In my head I knew we had a chance,” said Pepsi, who received the nickname because he drinks at least ten Pepsis a day. “I just said, ‘Keep grinding, bud.’
“This guy is the guttiest player I’ve ever worked for. Ever. This kid, there’s no quit.”
Bradley aimed right for the flag on the 16th and knocked an 8-iron to about seven feet. He rolled in the birdie putt and with Dufner’s bogey on 15, the two-shot swing cut the lead back down to three.
And then came the par-3 17th. The Woodstock, VT, native, who moved to Hopkinton, MA, for his senior year of high school, hit a safe shot to the right side of the tucked pin on the left, near the pond guarding the green. From roughly 40 feet, Bradley rolled in a curling right-to-left putt dead center in the cup, reacting with an emphatic fist-pump.
[Heck, I was so stunned that I didn’t even realize my phone had fallen out of my pocket while I was walking toward the 18th tee. It wasn’t until I heard someone say, “Hey Steph, you dropped your phone,” said Keegan. Huh, really? “Yeah, it’s back there,” gesturing a few yards behind. Turns out the eventual champion was calmer and more composed than I expected (and me). And that was pretty much when I knew he had the win in the bag.]
Bradley, who was in contention at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, fell apart with a six-over 41 on the final nine just a week earlier. The experience ended up being an excellent learning experience for Team Bradley.
“I completely lost it,” said Keegan, referring to the back side at Firestone. “I did a lot of work with Dr. Bob Rotella and Jim McLean, and also Phil Mickelson and Camilo Villegas have been a huge help to me since then.”
Throughout the week, Keegan emphasized trying to keep his emotions level regardless of the outcome.
“I under-reacted to the triple and I overreacted a little when I made that putt on 17,” he said, “but that was something that just came out of me. I didn’t even know it was coming.”
Added Pepsi: “I texted my friends last night and said we’re going to find out how much we learned last week. He learned some things, I learned some things…He’s been a great putter. It’s just hard. He makes birdies after bogeys. Full credit to this kid.”
Dufner followed his clutch bogey on 15 with two more bogeys, including a three-putt on 17. As Bradley walked down 18 fairway, fans hollered, “You’re tied for the lead! You’re tied!”
The Resolve of a Champion
“I can’t teach heart and heart won this golf tournament,” said Pepsi. “He hit great golf shots, he played great every time he made a mistake, he was ready, willing to come back and have his head in the game.”
Coming into this week, Keegan was better known as “Pat Bradley’s nephew,” the LPGA legend and World Golf Hall of Famer. Aunt Pat, who captured six majors and 31 LPGA tournaments, watched from home in Massachusetts and she wasn’t concerned after his triple-bogey on the 15th.
“He has always been a very resilient young man,” said Pat on the phone Sunday night. “He never lost a moment of wanting the championship. It was in his eyes on every shot — he was not going to be displaced by that triple-bogey. I saw it in his eyes. I knew it was going to be OK.”
His perseverance doesn’t just come from his aunt, but also from his father Mark Bradley, a PGA professional at Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis in Wyoming, said Pat.
Kaye Bradley, who looked after her ten-month-old grandson Aiden Keegan Bradley while her son played the front nine, switched babysitting duties with her daughter Madison, 22, to walk the back nine.
“It was frightful, but other than winning, the next thing that makes me so proud of Keegan is the way he has been able to bounce back,” said Kaye, referring to the triple-bogey on 15. “He’s done that his whole career. To me, it’s simply amazing he can do that and not fall apart.
“It’s just really impressive. I certainly never doubted him for a second. Never, ever.”
Both Bradley and Dufner hit beautiful shots on the first of three playoff holes. For a moment, Dufner seemed to regroup — just needing a quick timeout — and he threw a dart at the 16th pin, which nearly went in, burning the right edge of the cup and leaving him with a slippery four-footer. Bradley responded and knocked it even closer. Which again, squashed any momentum Dufner tried to regain. And Dufner yipped his short putt, while Bradley sank his for a one-shot advantage.
Though it was a three-hole aggregate-score playoff, I could feel it in the atmosphere that it was as good as over. Bradley led Dufner by two strokes going into the third and last playoff hole, the 18th. His caddie told him to just enjoy the moment walking up 18.
“I tried, but I was so nervous that I didn’t really,” said Keegan, laughing. “Honestly, I was just trying not to fall on my face.”
No doubt he’s reveling in his glory now as the seventh consecutive first-time major champ, who also broke the American drought.
“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.
It’s not just real, it’s history. The lesson? No guts, no glory. And never count out the underdog.