JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Vermont isn't a golf state, St. John's University isn't a golf school, and the long putter isn't what great players win major championships with.
Oops! Check that. Tour rookie Keegan Bradley, playing in his first major championship, proved all of those statements wrong here Sunday when he won the PGA Championship. He proved it with his shotmaking and his clutch putting in a tense playoff victory over Jason Dufner, and he won a following of new fans with his charismatic displays of emotion and gutty shots. Bradley just might be that new golf star America so badly needs.
He's the fifth PGA champion who is the son of a PGA of America member — his dad is a club pro. His aunt is Pat Bradley, a former LPGA star and a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.
"I grew up idolizing her; I always wanted to be like her," Keegan Bradley said of his famous aunt. "I wouldn't be here without my mom and dad. My dad gave me the opportunity to play endless golf, at least in the summer in Vermont, and it's paid off."
On Sunday, Bradley hit an assortment of world-class shots — plus one ugly chip that ran across the 15th green and into a lake — and played tough, never-quit golf. He was five strokes back with three holes to play in regulation but rallied to win after a three-hole playoff. Afterward, Bradley, 25, lifted the storied Wanamaker Trophy in the fading summer light and tried to soak in this moment and his good fortune.
"It's a dream come true," he said on the 18th green after the win. "I still can't believe this is even happening."
There were highlights and lowlights all week at Atlanta Athletic Club, especially on the course's demanding final four holes, which yielded disasters galore. Perhaps no one played more memorable shots during PGA week than the enthusiastic rookie Bradley, who was born in Woodstock, Vt., played college golf at St. John's and became the first major champion to win using a long/belly putter.
Memorable shots? Dufner, 34, an Auburn alum, looked like a potential runaway winner on the front nine Sunday until Bradley stuffed an iron shot to four feet at the 12th hole and made eagle to tie him at nine under par. Suddenly, it was game on.
At the dreaded and dangerous par-3 15th, which is longer than the Congressional Record (at 260 yards) and guarded by water, Bradley played an approach shot pin-high left that nestled down into some thick Bermuda grass. His chip came out hot, caught the downhill slope and ran down the green, across the rock wall and into the lake. Bradley returned to the drop area well back up the fairway rather than try that unpromising chip again, hit it to five feet and missed the putt. He made a triple bogey that seemed to end his PGA chances.
"It was a terrible lie," he said of the chip shot. "I was thinking of how I could've played that differently, but I don't think I could have. It was just in a terrible spot."
He was suddenly five back. "All day, I'd kept telling myself that no lead was safe on this course, it was so tough," Bradley said.
He wasn't done making memorable shots. He stuck his iron shot to eight feet at the tough, uphill 16th and poured in the birdie putt, punctuating it with an emphatic fist pump. He played a safe shot at the par-3 17th, fronted by a lake, and had a slick, sidehill 40-foot putt. Incredibly, he ran that in for another birdie. Bradley pumped his fist and shouted "Yeah!" when it dropped in the cup. Dufner, who had bogeyed 15 and 16, and whose five-shot lead had dwindled to one, watched from the tee and heard the week's biggest roar. Dufner made another bogey at 17, and the tournament was tied.
"That was a putt I'll never forget for the rest of my life," Bradley said.
At 18, Bradley nearly did it again. His monster putt from the back portion of the green curled to a stop within a foot as a hopeful-and-then-relieved Bradley excitedly jogged after it. He tapped in for a par that forced Dufner to make a matching par, which forced a three-hole playoff.
The tension and the drama just get kept getting better in the playoff. Dufner hit it close at 16, then Bradley hit it closer. Dufner missed his birdie putt, though. Bradley made his and gave it a nice fist pump. Bradley hit it to 20 feet at 17, Dufner hit it to 40 feet and faced the same supersonic putt he'd had there in regulation. Again, his first putt raced 12 feet past and he missed the second. Bradley curled in his par attempt and was two shots ahead.
That gave Bradley a cushion. On 18, he played his approach to the left edge of the green, landing his ball 20 feet from the hole. Dufner hit his approach next to Bradley's and made his birdie putt. Bradley lagged his putt close, tapped in for the championship, raised his long putter in the air and began looking for people to hug.
For a tournament beleaguered all weekend by critics complaining about the lack of marquee names on the leaderboard, the dramatic finish more than made up for any missing sizzle.
"The was the best golf I've ever played," Bradley admitted. "Man, it was so exciting."
For the first 68 holes of this tournament, Dufner looked like Ben Hogan reincarnated. In the final round, he made putt after putt and seemed to put the lead out of reach of what was originally a large posse of final-round pursuers. Dufner sank a nice birdie putt at the tough sixth, then another at the eighth. At the 12th, after Bradley's eagle, Dufner's shot went over the green and trickled to rest in a drain. After a drop, he chipped 15 feet past the cup but made that one, too. Then he ran in another birdie putt on the 13th.
Suddenly it was Dufner's championship to lose after Bradley's stunning triple and a flurry of bogeys by Robert Karlsson and Anders Hansen. Dufner hadn't made a bogey all week on the tough stretch from the 15th to the 18th, but he suddenly bogeyed three in a row. His newly minted five-stroke lead started shrinking.
All Dufner had to do on 15 was keep it dry. Instead, he pushed his hybrid shot short and to the right — kerplunk! — right in the lake. He showed some mettle by holing a curling eight-foot bogey putt to minimize the damage. But Dufner, whose is known for superior ball-striking and fickle putting, had cracked.
He made bogey from the greenside bunker at 16, then three-putted for bogey from 45 feet at the 17th to fall into a tie with Bradley. Dufner two-putted for a tying par from 40 feet at 18th, setting up the playoff that he lost.
It was a tough one to take. Dufner's voice cracked a bit when he talked to reporters after his round. This was his second big disappointment this year. He also lost in a playoff in Phoenix to Mark Wilson.
"I'm disappointed now, but there's a lot of good things to take from this week," Dufner said. "I believe this gets me into all of the majors next year, so that's a good opportunity. I'm not a history buff. I know the media tries to define career on you did this, you didn't do that. I'm not into that. I just play golf. I love the competition.
"Coming from where I came from, this is a dream come true," he continued. "I never imagined playing in major championships or playing with Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods. That's a milestone in itself. I'm not going to let this define my career. I'm young, not as young as Keegan, but I'll have more time to win majors and use what happened today as a positive."
Even on Sunday morning, not many people were imagining a Bradley-Dufner playoff. They had an impressive group of pursuers at the start of the final round, but they fell away one by one.
Steve Stricker looked like he would be a factor when he birdied the opening hole to get within two shots of the lead. Then he bogeyed the second, followed by a sweep-hook iron shot at the par-3 fourth than splashed into the lake. That double bogey dropped Stricker back to two under and he never recovered.
Phil Mickelson started at even par and picked up two shots on the front nine. He missed a short par putt at the 10th — sound familiar? — and then failed to birdie the 12th, a par 5 that many players were reaching in two. He was out of it.
Jim Furyk, the former U.S. Open champion who'd played his way near the lead Saturday only to suffer a wet double bogey at the 18th, bogeyed two of his first three holes and was never a factor.
How about the two top-ranked players in the world, Luke Donald and Lee Westwood? They both made runs that came up short. Just like Saturday, Donald ran his total to five under when he birdied the 12th, narrowly missing an eagle putt. Then he pushed his tee shot at the par-3 15th hole and splashed it into the lake. He made bogey after re-teeing and nearly holing out.
"A missed opportunity again," Donald said later. "The positives I see is I didn't have my best this week and I still came reasonably close. Again, bittersweet. It's another major gone, another year gone without winning a major."
Westwood got to four under but no better, and finished his round in frustrating style when he went for the 18th green from a fairway bunker and rinsed it in the lake short of the green. He made a bogey putt.
"I played lovely again, didn't miss many greens," Westwood said. "I have enjoyed playing great for a long time now, but when I don't win majors, it's a disappointing week for everybody, it seems. But that's the sort of level of golf I'm playing at."
David Toms, who won here in 2001, made a surprising run with six birdies, but his momentum ended with a bogey at the 16th.
Scott Verplank and Adam Scott tried to hang in there but simply couldn't generate enough birdies to keep up with Dufner.
Brendan Steele, playing in the last pairing with Dufner, flamed out early. He bogeyed the first from the fairway bunker, missed the green at the par-3 fourth and made another bogey, then bogeyed the par-5 fifth. He shot four over par on the front nine and couldn't regroup.
By the time the challengers got to the crucial holes — 15 through 18 — it was down to five contenders: Dufner, Karlsson from Sweden and Hansen from Denmark, Verplank and Bradley. Karlsson bogeyed the last three holes, Hansen bogeyed the 16th and Verplank made double at 17 after a carom shot off the rock siding around the green found the lake.
That left Dufner and Bradley to battle it out, and resulted in Bradley taking the title.
When Bradley first sat down at the podium in the media center, he pulled out his cell phone and snapped a photo of the Wanamaker Trophy in front of him on a table with a roomful of writers as background. The writers laughed and so did the engaging Bradley.
It was another moment Bradley won't soon forget.