By Mike Blum
Those who were surprised that Keegan Bradley – or someone like him – won the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club have not paid much attention to either the history of the event or the major championship winners at AAC.
Bradley joins the list of unlikely PGA champions over the past 20 years or so, joining the likes of Wayne Grady, John Daly, Rich Beem, Shaun Micheel and Y.E. Yang.
Of the four majors played at the Athletic Club – three PGA Championships and one U.S. Open – all were won by players who had yet to win a major. Bradley became the second rookie to win at AAC, joining 1976 U.S. Open champion Jerry Pate.
Bradley also extended the streak of first-time major champions to seven straight, and was the 13th different winner in the last 13 Grand Slam events.
Thanks to Bradley’s victory, the U.S. winless streak in majors was halted at six, with Bradley also making some history as the first player to win a major championship while using a belly putter.
The PGA Championship has been known over the last dozen years for wild finishes that occasionally produce an unexpected winner. While the 2011 edition of the event was pretty much devoid of marquee names, it did not lack for a thrilling finish, although that seemed unlikely to be case with leader Jason Dufner standing on the 15th tee with a seemingly comfortable 4-stroke lead.
But Dufner, who had dominated the Athletic Club’s fearsome foursome of finishing holes the first three rounds, bogeyed three of them in succession the final day, while Bradley bravely recovered from a triple bogey at the 15th that seemingly had taken him out of contention while all but ensuring Dufner the championship trophy.
With birdies at 16 and 17, Bradley made up five strokes on Dufner in the span of just three holes, with both scoring solid pars on the demanding 18th to send the championship to a three-hole playoff.
The two major championship novices, who finished tied after 72 holes at 8-under 272, turned in a superb display of clutch ball striking in the playoff, both hammering drives in the fairway and firing at the flags, hitting every green in regulation.
But Dufner was done in by his putter, which failed him after an otherwise excellent effort on the day, including a bogey save at the 15th after his tee shot splashed down in the pond fronting the green of the 259-yard par 3.
Bradley, playing in the group in front of Dufner, hit his tee shot at the 15th into some thick rough just over the green. He chopped his second shot from a nasty lie past the pin and into the water, resulting in a triple bogey that dropped him from two behind Dufner to five shots off the lead.
“I just tried to steady myself on the tee and I hit the best drive of the week on 16,” Bradley said. He fired his second shot to within birdie range and holed the putt, closing within three of Dufner after the leader bogeyed 15.
When Bradley holed a bomb for birdie at 17 and Dufner bogeyed 16 after an errant second shot into a greenside bunker, the margin was down to one with all the momentum having swung in Bradley’s direction.
Dufner cited the approach to the 16th as the shot that cost him the most.
“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.”
Dufner was fooled by the speed of the green at 17 and three-putted for bogey, a result he would repeat in the playoff.
“You would think the second time around it would be a little bit better, but it was actually worse.”
After his 3-putt in regulation on 17, Dufner dropped into a tie with Bradley, and both hit the fairway and the green at 18 for pars that forced the third three-hole playoff in the PGA Championship over the past eight years.
After both players again hit the fairway with their tee shots on 16, Dufner nearly hit the flagstick with his approach, with his ball coming to rest about 8 feet above the hole. Bradley responded, placing his approach inside Dufner, with an easier uphill putt of 4 feet.
Dufner pulled his attempt left, Bradley holed his, and for the first time all day Dufner was out of the lead. He fell two back when he again watched his birdie try at 17 race well past the cup, while Bradley carded a solid par.
Bradley seemingly locked up the victory with a bold approach to the 18th that did not carry the rock walled lake guarding the green by much, but Dufner landed his second right next to Bradley’s ball to keep his slim hopes alive. Dufner’s birdie putt just trickled over the lip for birdie, but Bradley rolled his putt within tap-in range for a par and the victory, the second of his likely Rookie-of-the-Year season.
“If feels unbelievable,: Bradley said to open his champion’s media interview. “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.
“It’s an honor to be champion of the PGA. My father is a PGA member and it’s just great.”
Bradley’s first PGA Tour came in late May in Dallas in the Byron Nelson Classic, when he overcame some of the toughest conditions in a PGA Tour event this year, winning in a playoff over Ryan Palmer.
He was in contention again the week before the PGA Championship in the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, but played his last seven holes in 6-over to plummet down the leader board.
Bradley began the final round one shot behind co-leaders Dufner and Brendan Steele, another rookie who also picked up a win earlier this year in Texas, his coming in San Antonio the week after the Masters.
Steele shot himself out of contention with four bogeys on the front nine, leaving Dufner and Bradley as the primary protagonists, with several more prominent and experienced players hanging within range of a possible meltdown by either or both of the two major contenders.
Denmark’s Anders Hansen quietly worked his way up the leader board after beginning the day four off the lead. Back-to-back birdies at 11 and 12 pulled him within two of the lead, and he followed a bogey at 16 with a birdie at 17 that lifted him to a finish of 3rd at 273, just one out of the playoff after a closing 66, the low round of the day.
Veterans David Toms, Scott Verplank and Robert Karlsson tied for 4th at 285, with Karlsson making the most serious move of the trio before a late fade. A pair of brilliant iron shots at 10 and 12 produced a birdie and an eagle, getting him to 6-under on the day and 8-under for the tournament, just one off the lead.
But three consecutive bogeys at 16, 17 and 18 doomed Karlsson’s hopes when three pars would have earned him a spot in the playoff.
Toms, the 2001 PGA champion at AAC, went 6-under on the vulnerable middle nine of the course (holes 5 to 13), but was 3-over on the demanding start/finish at the Athletic Club and settled for a 67
Verplank gave himself a chance when he holed a bunker shot for birdie at 16 to get to 7-under, but his tee shot at 17 caromed off the rock roll fronting the green and into the pond, leaving him with a double bogey and an even-par 70 on the day.
Until his late ride on the bogey train, Dufner held up extremely play playing under the pressure of leading a major championship for the first time.
He began his round with a string of pars, taking the lead with a pitch and putt birdie at the 6th, which played at 289 yards the final day, 140 yards shorter than its standard length. Bradley pulled even with a birdie at the 8th, but Dufner matched him minutes later to reclaim the top spot by himself.
Bradley again pulled even when he hit his second shot to the par-5 12th to within eagle range, but Dufner answered with birdie putts at 12 and 13 to move two in front. His lead doubled when Bradley tripled the 15th, but things turned rapidly after Dufner’s 5-wood drifted right and into the pond guarding the green at the treacherous par 3.
Despite the triple at 15, Bradley still held onto hopes that a comeback was possible.
“I remember walking off that green going ‘the last four holes are so tough here that somebody could have a five-shot lead and it doesn’t matter’.”
Bradley could have folded after the triple bogey, but was determined not to let that happen.
“I just kept telling myself, don’t let that hole define this whole tournament. I had played so well and I just didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who tripled that hole and went on to bogeying or something.”
Bradley followed his perfectly-played birdie at 16 with a putt in the 40-foot range at the 17th, responding with his only major display of emotion the entire day. It was a putt Bradley said he will “never forget the rest of my life.”
Bradley and Dufner vaulted themselves into contention the second day, when they shot 64 and 65 respectively to share the 36-hole lead at 135. They were paired together the next day, with Dufner carding a 68 to remain tied for the lead, this time with Steele, and Bradley shooting a 69 to begin the final day just one back.