When the day dawned on Sunday’s final round, there was a pall over the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club in Johns Creek, Georgia.
There was disappointment abroad in the land that our stars could do no better than to deliver us into the hands of three unknown young players who would never be able to sate our lust for the adulation of our heroes, who would never be able to thrill us with their gritty, seasoned artistry. The naysayers were oh, so wrong.
The remnants were two players named Jason Dufner and Brendan Steele at 7-under par and Keegan Bradley at 6-under. It did not seem to matter that this very year, Dufner had just lost a playoff in Phoenix, Steele had won the Texas Open in San Antonio, and Bradley had won the Byron Nelson in Dallas. A memory plague had descended upon the naysayers and caused them to forget just how hard it is to win a PGA Tour tournament.
So as the last ten or so times on the Tee Sheet spilled across the tongue of the official starter, everyone was pressing to hear the names of our stars, the stars who would rise to the occasion as they had done so many times before and deliver us from this lackluster state of affairs. They had done it before, they could do it again: shoot a preposterously low score and save us from this gray, sunshiny day. Westwood, Furyk, Donald, Watney, Scott, Schwartzel, Toms, Sticker and dare we hope, even Phil. Anybody! Please! Anybody?
For those who were hoping for this salvation, it was an encouraging front nine. The unknowns weren’t pulling away and some of the heroes were coming to life! Westwood, Donald, Scott and Toms all began to creep up the leaderboard, and even the strapping Swede, Robert Karlsson begin to paint an attractive picture of what his win would look like. But alas, the momentum died in the bunkers and ponds of this beastly golf course. The naysayers were done for, left to their continuous carping from the sidelines.
Those who gave up in frustration and decided to take the dog for a long walk instead, missed one of the best PGA Championships in recent memory—who can remember a better one? The emotional dislocation of the morning, the seething impatience to bend them to our will, was all part of the total experience: break their hearts early and then knock their socks off with tension suitable to the home stretch of any of the other majors. This year, Charl Schwartzel snuck up on us in the Masters with his four straight closing birdies to win; Rory McIlroy amazed us with his mastery of a Congressional Country Club course that befuddled everyone else; and Darren Clarke had convinced us with his steadiness that he pretty much had it in hand when Dustin Johnson hit it out of bounds. Some drama, yes, but nothing to compare to the PGA.
Brendan Steele began to fall back with a first hole bogey and it went downhill from there. By the time he came off the front he was 4-over. He gave us some spark with an eagle-3 on the 12th, but then he gave it right back with back-to-back bogeys on 13 and 14…and it was over for him. By the time the crowd at 18 was trying to cheer him up with consoling applause, he was defeated, sullen and unresponsive. And perhaps even embarrassed at having such a public failure on such a huge stage when his expectations for himself were so high. Crushing defeats like that are so disappointing, take it from a seasoned expert of way too many of them.
Bradley went off in the group directly in front of Dufner and laid down a marker for his intentions and psychological condition with a birdie on the first hole. That tied him with Dufner a 7-under.
Dufner couldn’t get any traction early and didn’t make a birdie until the 6th. But he followed that with 3 more at 8, 12 and 13 to ultimately get to 11-under.
Although he once reached 8-under, Bradley couldn’t seem to get off 7-under until he made a spectacular eagle-3 on 12 to get to 9-under. And that’s where he stood when he arrived at the long, par-3 15th, just 2 shots back.
He safely navigated his ball just off the left edge of the green; the entire right side of the green was hard by the pond. Unfortunately, appearances can be deceiving; when he arrived at his ball he could see that it had sunk to the middle earth of the Bermuda rough. He tried to hit a little flop shot onto the green to slowly track down to the hole, but the rough de-lofted his wedge, the ball came out low and hot, jaunted across the width of the green and plopped in the pond. Oh, no!
It is such a shock to the system when that happens and by the time he was done making his eventual triple-bogey, he should have been crushed because of all that it implied about his chances. But he wasn’t. He immediately followed that with two improbable birdies on 16 and 17 to get back to 8-under.
For his part, having had to wait for so long on the elevated tee while Bradley torturously compiled his triple, Dufner hit his tee shot in the pond…and bogeyed 16 and 17 to come back to 8-under too: playoff. A 3-hole cumulative playoff won by Bradley by one stroke.
This nuts and bolts re-creation of what happened does not begin to do justice to the incredible shots and putts the two of them made. Nor to the drama of it all. Nor does it begin to capture just how emotionally unresponsive Dufner was to everything that was happening; he just kept playing. It was the most even-tempered display of golf I have ever seen. But painting this stark tableau was necessary to illustrate just how hopeless Bradley’s situation was when he made that triple so late in the game. No one could come back from that. But he did.
The indomitable spirit in him rose up and kept going. Like a drowning man, he was not going to go down until he couldn’t swim another stroke. It was a magnificent thing to watch. It is the stuff of legend and lore. People will remember where they were. And from that dreary beginning, we have a new addition to the pantheon of our heroes. And because of his exemplary demeanor, I suspect most people will find a place in the hearts for Dufner too. It was a classic, real-life display of what it means to be totally in the present.
And so that’s why it’s necessary to give the players on the stage their due, however much we judge them to be inadequate. Our snap judgments about their lack of star power is so superficial and petulant, that it never allows for what might be possible for them as human beings. And it most certainly doesn’t allow for the billowing engagement of their irrepressible human spirit.
That understanding just might be the best thing to come out of this year’s tournament.