JOHNS CREEK, Ga. (AP) — Keegan Bradley was 12 years old, standing on top of the mountain in the middle of another brutal Vermont winter.
Like any New England kid, he loved to ski. Got pretty good at it, too. But, with the sleet pounding his face and the cold piercing through his bones, he decided there was a better way down.
“This is not as much fun as golf,” he told himself. “I love golf so much more.”
Good call. Bradley won a major championship on his very first try Sunday, and if that wasn’t extraordinary enough, look at the way he did it.
The 25-year-old trailed Jason Dufner by five strokes with three holes to play in the PGA Championship, his chances seemingly snuffed out when he dumped his ball in the water at the 15th hole and made triple bogey.
But the youngster pulled himself together, made two straight birdies, and wound up in a three-hole playoff when Dufner bogeyed three in a row.
From there, Bradley took control. Considering what he faced on a mountaintop, Atlanta Athletic Club was a breeze.
He made a birdie at the first extra hole, drilling a laser of an approach to 4 feet on No. 16 after Dufner nearly holed out. He safely cleared the pond at the par-3 17th and went another stroke up when Dufner three-putted. Then, one last bit of bravado at the 18th – a gutty 5-iron that cleared even more water to set up the clinching par.
The Wanamaker Trophy was his.
“I can’t believe this thing is sitting next to me,” he said, looking at the gleaming silver cup.
Considering his pedigree – his aunt, Pat Bradley, is an LGPA Hall of Famer – this wasn’t so improbable at all.
“I grew up going to Pat’s tournaments and totally idolizing her and wanting to be like her,” the nephew recalled. “I remember as a kid going to her tournaments and literally staring her in the face and … she was so into it, she would not even recognize me. And I thought that was cool.”
Dufner will join those heart-wrenching players who let a major championship slip away, his meltdown remembered alongside Scott Hoch blowing that 18-inch putt at the Masters and Jan Van de Velde throwing away that three-shot lead on the 72nd hole of the British Open.
The 34-year-old journeyman had never won a tour event, much less a tournament of this magnitude. But he played rock-solid for nearly all of four days, hitting more fairways than anyone, avoiding the water and sand and rough lurking at every turn. Tiger Woods couldn’t do it. Neither could defending PGA champion Martin Kaymer. They were among the big names sent packing before the weekend.
Showing little emotion, Dufner arrived at the 15th tee on Sunday with a commanding four-stroke lead. The last four holes at Atlanta can be a killer, but he had played them at a cumulative 3 under over the first three days.
No problem, right?
Suddenly, the guy who had been unflappable couldn’t hit it straight. He put his tee shot at 15 in the water and made bogey. He put his approach at 16 in a bunker and made another bogey. Finally, he needed three putts to get down at 17 – a third straight bogey.
Playing up ahead in the next-to-last group, Bradley bounced back from his triple bogey with two straight birdies. When a 35-foot putt disappeared into the cup at the 17th, he broke into a Tiger-like celebration – the left hand holding up his club, the right hand delivering a furious fist pump.
Dufner was watching all that from the elevated tee box. He sensed his title might be slipping away.
When it was done, he seemed more numb than disappointed. It might take a while for this one to sink in.
“I’m so new at this situation, I don’t know if I appreciate it as much as I will,” Dufner said. “Maybe when I look back in 15 or 20 years, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t get another chance. But I have a feeling I’ll have more chances in a major to close one out.”
That’s probably what Hoch and Van de Velde thought.
Their second chance never came.
For Bradley, the future looks brighter than ever. He’s always been a guy who stayed out of the limelight, even with his famous name and impressive rookie season. He already had a win, capturing the Byron Nelson in a playoff back in May.
Even so, everyone touted guys such as Dustin Johnson and Anthony Kim as the future of American golf in a world no longer dominated by Woods.
Well, make room for another. Bradley was the one- not Johnson or Kim – who ended the longest American drought of the modern Grand Slam era, a winless stretch covering six straight majors since Phil Mickelson won the 2010 Masters.
“Ever since I was 10 years old, I’ve kind of flown under the radar,” Bradley said. “I had what I thought was a pretty good college career (at St. John’s), but I never really got noticed. Same in junior golf and kind of the same out here. I’ve been having a good year, and that’s just the way it happens with me, which is fine. I’m happy with it.”
He knows life is about to change, and he’s happy with that, too.
“It’s cool to be thought of as one of those guys now,” Bradley said. “I’ve always wanted, growing up, to win tournaments and win majors.”
He doesn’t intend to be a one-major wonder, either. There’s been plenty of those, especially at the PGA, everyone from Shaun Micheel to Rich Beem.
“I don’t want to be one of the guys that kind of disappears,” Bradley said. “I don’t plan to.”
As he posed on the 18th green with his glittering prize, the improbable winner on a sweltering day in the Deep South, that snowy mountaintop in Vermont must’ve seemed so far, far away.
“That was the moment that I realized I wanted to golf instead of ski,” he said. “I was sitting on top of that hill, freezing, having no fun, and I said, ‘You know what, I want to be a golfer.'”
Not just any golfer, either.
A major champion.
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