Rookie Bradley wins PGA in playoff

Photo by Christine Troyke

Photo by Christine Troyke

Many people suspected a guy wearing a red shirt would be holding the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday evening after winning the 93rd PGA Championship. But few could have guessed the victor would be Keegan Bradley, who entered the week as just another one of the fine young rookies on the PGA Tour and exited as a rising star.

Bradley set his fledgling career on a different path when he overcame a five-shot deficit with only three holes remaining to force a playoff, and then defeated Jason Dufner in a three-hole playoff to win the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club.

Bradley became the first American to win a major championship since Phil Mickelson at the Masters in 2010. He became only the third player in history to win in his major tournament debut; Ben Curtis did it in 2005 when he won the British Open and Francis Ouimet did it when he won the U.S. Open in 1913. He is the first player to win his first start in the PGA Championship since Shaun Micheel in 2003.

“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,” Bradley said.

Bradley comes from a family of golfers. His father is a PGA professional and his aunt is Pat Bradley, the former LPGA great and member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Aunt Pat was among the hundreds who bombarded his cell phone with calls and texts following his victory.

Hours earlier it appeared those post-round calls would be reserved instead for consolation messages. When Bradley made a triple bogey at the 15th hole, it appeared that Dufner had been handed the championship. As he walked to the 16th tee, Bradley could take solace in the fact that Dufner still faced the daunting stretch of closing holes.

“I remember walking off that green going, you know, the last four holes are so tough here that somebody could lose a five-shot lead,” he said.

Then two remarkable things happened: Bradley began making birdies and Dufner began making bogeys.

• Dufner had a bogey at 15, moments after Bradley stepped off the green. The lead was down to four.

• Bradley dropped a birdie putt at No. 16. The lead was down to three.

• Dufner missed the green at No. 16 and couldn’t recover. With that bogey the lead was down to two.

• With the momentum starting to shift, Bradley made a 50-footer for birdie at No. 17 that was worthy of his fist pump. The lead was one shot.

• Dufner rolled his putt on the 17th green about 12 feet past the hole and missed the comebacker. Tie game.

“Because the course is so tough, no lead is safe,” Bradley said. “I kept trying to tell myself that, because I knew that was the case, especially if you have a big lead, you might get a little tight coming down to the end.”

Bradley outplayed Dufner in the three-hole aggregate playoff and had a two-shot lead going into final hole. Once he was safe and dry on the green, past the pond that fronts the 18th green, Bradley needed only to traverse the final 20 feet in two shots, which he did with ease.

Bradley’s career path has been changed by the outcome. He entered the week as one of the Tour’s best rookie players, one good enough to win the HP Byron Nelson Championship. He exits with exemptions for every major championship in 2012, entry into the World Golf Championship events and an elevated profile. He certainly earned the right to wear red on Sunday, too.

“That’s unbelievable considering the fact that 2 1/2 years ago I was playing on the Hooters Tour, grinding for survival to keep playing,” he said. “It’s amazing what comes with winning a PGA Tour event. I have no idea what comes with winning a major right now.”

The big finish provided an appropriate ending for the championship. The Atlanta Athletic Club was given high marks all week by the players for its condition and setup. The Highlands Course provided plenty of drama, both positive and negative. And while no announcement came on Sunday, it is likely that the PGA will make another return trip to Johns Creek.