Pressure can't touch these major championship beginners

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- As a way of whiling away the morning hours before his late-afternoon tee time on Saturday, Keegan Bradley found an easy ally in his 10-month-old nephew.

He spent the morning playing with little Aiden Bradley, who was wheeled around in a baby carriage at the 93rd PGA Championship as his uncle was putting himself in position to contend for the title.

In their own way, both are diaper dandies.

In an almost incomprehensible tableau during an era of unsurpassed global depth, Bradley will begin the final round of the final major one stroke behind co-leader and fellow rookie Brendan Steele.

Bradley, 25, cracked that his little nephew had no idea what was going on around him, a statement that might just apply to himself, too. Incredibly, both he and Steele are playing in their first major championship.

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"I probably have no idea what's going on," Bradley laughed. "I hope I can still not understand what's going on tomorrow."

Ah, a double negative that could soon morph into an inestimable positive.

Steele and Bradley are taking the ignorance-is-bliss notion to a stratospheric level. The last time a player won in his major-championship debut was when Ben Curtis won as a rookie at the 2003 British Open. Before that, it was Francis Ouimet in ... 1913.

Steele and Bradley spent last summer toiling on the developmental Nationwide Tour. Each has already won on the PGA Tour this season, which buoyed their hopes tremendously, but this is a whole different realm of pain and suffering.

Or so we have been trained to think over the past, oh, century of major championships. The history of the game is littered with the skeletons of big-name guys who fainted under duress on Slam weekends.

These two hardly blinked, however, on the event's penultimate day. Steele shot his third straight score under par with a 66 and will play in the final group with Dufner, 34. Bradley, who shot 1-under 69, will be situated in the next group ahead. The pair are frequent practice-round partners, sometimes with mentor Phil Mickelson.

Somehow, they have been able to con themselves into thinking this is just another event, which is either a testament to their mental strength or the biggest exercise in Grand Slam self-delusion in years. Whatever, it's surely working.

"Everyone thinks that it's a major," said Nick Wilkins, Steele's caddie. "But we approach it as another golf tournament, whether it's the Nationwide or wherever."

This would definitely be wherever. Steele, who won under the season's most difficult final-round conditions during a windstorm at the Texas Open, played in France last month and it only helped ease his transition into the limelight. He finished T7.

"We got out of our element there, and it built our confidence," Wilkins said.

This element called Atlanta Athletic Club is like the glowing, smoldering, red-hot kind on the front of a stove -- and it burned plenty of more experienced guys. None of the game's most decorated major-championship winners, like Woods, Harrington, Singh and Mickelson, are closer than level par.

Both players have been making the usual jokes about pinching themselves, but it certainly applies. This is a hugely unusual circumstance -- two of the top three on the board are major championship virgins.

"It's kind of out of my wildest dreams, there," Steele said.

Dufner, who doesn't have a PGA Tour victory, said it would be unwise to assume that because they are rookies and playing in their first major, that Steele and Bradley will wet their bed sheets.

"They have experiences as far as playing tournaments and winning tournaments, and I think that goes a long way, whether you win at junior golf or college golf or Hooters Tour or Nationwide Tour," Dufner said. "That's winning, that's competing.

"The names might change, the atmosphere might change but I think it goes a long way and I think that's why those guys have been real successful."

Bradley jumped into the fore with a blistering 64 on Friday. According to PGA Tour data, which dates to 1983, that's the lowest round by a major-championship first-timer during that 28-year span.

The similarities are striking, really. Both use a belly putter, both are built like a 1-iron, they have thus far avoided any damage on the brutish four-hole closing stretch at AAC. In fact, they each have a single bogey, on the 18th, over their three rounds.

Who would have envisioned that, at a time when the American golf fortunes have been the subject of scrutiny and ridicule because of a record six-major victory drought, that two veritable rookies playing in their first major would be closest to snapping the skein?

Maybe there's an advantage to having zero major-championship scar tissue, of having never been trampled by the so-called big boys, or chewed up by some Grand Slam layout on green-grass steroids.

"When you talk about guys like Tiger and Phil and Harrington, guys that have won majors, and multiple times," Steele said, "I'm sure they have got an advantage over a guy like me."

Those fellas are nowhere in sight, brother. So who knows, maybe being a little naïve, if that's the right word, will come in handy when walking into the Sunday shooting gallery for the first time?

"I'll act like that," Steele laughed, "if that will help me, definitely."

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