JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Golf used to be a simple game, dominated by players we knew so well that we needed only to use their first names, most recently Tiger and Phil. But the names Brendan, Jason and Keegan have challenged even the most obsessive fans at the 93rd PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Who are these guys?
Brendan Steele shot 66 and Jason Dufner carded a 68 to share the 54-hole lead at seven under par, followed closely by Keegan Bradley (69), who shook off an opening double-bogey and was one shot back.
"It was cool looking up at the leaderboard today and seeing Steele make birdie after birdie," Bradley said. "It was calming to me, actually. He's one of my good buddies out here. It's going to be really fun [Sunday]."
Americans hold the top five spots on the leaderboard and are poised to break a streak of six straight majors won by non-Americans.
Scott Verplank, 47, played the course's tough final four holes in two under par and shot 69 to finish five under, two shots off the lead. Steve Stricker, 44 and already a two-time winner on Tour this year, also shot 69 and was another shot back at four under. None of the top five has won a major. Bradley and Steele have never played in a major. Dufner has never won a Tour event.
"Everybody is going to be dealing with their nerves and the pressure of trying to win," said Stricker, who rebounded from a second-round 74. "I think it's who can keep it together the best and be patient and play some good golf."
Anders Hansen (70) and D.A. Points (71) were at three under par, four back.
Among the top 12 players on the leaderboard, only David Toms (65, two under total) and Charl Schwartzel (66, also two under) have won a major.
Phil Mickelson had a brief run, making birdie on the par-5 12th hole to get to three under for the day and two under for the tournament. But he failed to birdie the par-4 13th hole, where officials moved the tees up to make it drivable at 272 yards. And bogeys on 15, where he fanned his tee shot into the left bunker, and 18, where he three-putted, gave him a 69 for an even-par total through 54 holes.
After remaining in the scoring trailer for about 20 minutes, Mickelson opted out of being interviewed, walked to his black SUV in the player parking lot and drove away. According to his manager, he was struggling with the heat.
Jim Furyk briefly got to six under par but went five over on his last five holes, including double bogeys on 15 and 18, for a 73. He was at one under.
That set the stage for a trio of players so unknown that the casual fan could be excused for thinking he'd stumbled upon a Nationwide or Hooters tour event.
Steele, 28, is a Tour rookie who won the Valero Texas Open in fierce wind in April. Until then, the 2010 Nationwide Tour Championship was his biggest win. He loves hockey; his big brother, 14 years his senior, got him started in golf; and his uncle, Anthony Geary, plays Luke on "General Hospital."
Despondent over his play at the WGC-Bridgestone last week, Steele tweeted that he was ready to quit the game, but he picked up a valuable swing tip from his friend, Reno-Tahoe winner Scott Piercy, during a practice round for the PGA.
Dufner, 34, is a fairway-hitting machine with one of the best pre-shot waggles on Tour. He also saunters well. "Jason Dufner's walk defines the word 'saunter,'" Graeme McDowell tweeted. "He has the best saunter on the PGA Tour." He is something of a legend at Auburn, where he played on the golf team and, in a bit of late-night revelry, once knocked the bulb out of a lamp post with a frighteningly accurate shot from roughly 150 yards.
"We'd have a couple of beers and we'd try to show off for each other or any girls who were around," said Dufner, who lost to Mark Wilson in sudden death at the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February. "That was probably my sophomore or junior year. Those were probably two of my more delinquent years of college. After that I thought it was time to do something better with my life than drinking beer and smashing lamp posts at 2 in the morning."
After missing four straight cuts through the British Open, Dufner took a three-week break and got to AAC on Friday to work with his coach, Chuck Cook.
"I really play well in the South for some reason," Dufner said. "I grew up down here. I played college golf down here, so Bermuda grass — I'm really comfortable. And we got to the golf course, and I felt like I liked it. I felt like you had to hit fairways, which is one of my stronger suits."
Keegan Bradley, nephew of LPGA Hall of Fame golfer Pat Bradley, grew up in Vermont and played golf for St. Johns, an excellent basketball school. Like his good friend Steele, Bradley plays with a belly-putter and won earlier this year, at the H.P. Byron Nelson Championship in May. He's a wicked Red Sox fan.
"If you went and watched him play," Steele said of his pal, "you would instantly think that he's going to be a superstar."
The next big step in that process, for all three players, will be Sunday.
"It could be a good thing," Dufner said of the trio's lack of experience both in the majors and in the winner's circle. "Might maybe make me a little more relaxed knowing that everybody is kind of in the same boat, struggling with those emotions and thoughts and the mentality of trying to win a major."