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Verplank, Stricker play establishment role at wide open PGA

by | Special to CBSSports.com
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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- In the straight-to-video production that is the 93rd PGA Championship, a few rookie characters are trying to steal the scene from the veteran headliners.

Who would have ever thought the headliners would be 47-year-old Scott Verplank and 44-year-old Steve Stricker. It's like Tom Selleck and Robert Duvall competing for lines with three waiters at Hamburger Hamlet. They're the most familiar guys in this show at Atlanta Athletic Club that is devoid of superstar marquee power.

"Oh, well, thanks a lot," said Verplank of the suggestion that he's the B-list hero in this plot.

"I don't feel like a headliner out there," said Stricker, who carries such high-powered wattage that even as the highest ranked American in every major this season he hadn't been invited to the interview room at any of them until Wednesday.

Golf is one of those unusual games where fans tend not to root for the underdogs. If this were March Madness, guys likes Brendan Steele, Jason Dufner and Keegan Bradley would be VCU, Richmond and Princeton and have a whole nation screaming for them to beat Duke and Kentucky.

But golf fans tend to stick with the establishment. And if they are looking for a recognizable character to stake their rooting interests in on Sunday, Verplank and Stricker are the two most likely to draw the cheers.

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Verplank dropped three consecutive putts down the stretch Saturday to shoot 69 and settle into solo fourth just two spots behind co-leaders Steele and Dufner and one back of Bradley.

Stricker -- one of the best players in the world without a major to his name -- held it together all day to shoot 69 as well, thanks to a clutch up-and-down for par after laying up on the brutal 18th hole. He's perched alone in fifth just three off the lead.

Considering the only major winners within five shots of the lead are David Toms and Charl Schwartzel tied for eighth at 2-under, the unassuming combo of Verplank and Stricker have the most experience to pull off this comeback caper.

"There's guys that can come from behind that have nothing to lose, and then there's a lot of first timers up at the top," said Stricker of the Sunday scenario. "I don't know how far back you've got to go to find a major champion winner there. So everybody is going to be dealing with their nerves and the pressure of trying to win. I think it's who can keep it together the best and be patient and play some good golf."

It's really hard to fathom a more non-descript cast than this ensemble at AAC. It's less of a major championship and more of a World's Khakiest Man competition.

Seriously, good friends Steele and Bradley are so green they've never played in a major championship before in their lives.

"I'm playing right in front of him tomorrow," said Bradley of Steele. "If we would have said that to each other [before the week], we probably would have laughed. It's pretty cool."

There's also co-leader Dufner, a laid-back Auburn guy who has never won anything on the PGA tour. Right behind Stricker are D.A. Points and Anders Hansen -- two guys who don't raise the Q-rating too far.

If the measure of a golf tournament is the company it keeps, what does it say about this PGA that so few of the stars are near the top of the board?

"I think it just shows the depth and how good guys are these days," said Steele, who got his maiden win the week after the Masters at the Texas Open. "You've got younger guys and older guys and guys in the middle and everybody is playing at a high level."

Verplank would be pushing the ranks of the oldest guys to ever win a major should he prevail on Sunday. It's been 26 years since he was heralded as the next great superstar by winning the Western Open as an amateur in 1985. He's played in 62 majors prior to this week and never finished better than seventh.

"It feels great," he said of being in the thick of the hunt at his age. "I don't feel a day older than a hundred. I didn't even know if I was going to be in the PGA until like two weeks ago, because I still am in the top 100 in the world and that got me in the tournament. I was excited to get to play here, and you know what, I hope that I can turn back the clock a little bit, and go back to when I was about 21 when I won everything I played in. Maybe that will happen overnight."

Stricker is the closest thing to an icon this leaderboard has. He's won 11 times in his career and become an international team staple, but he's still 0-for-52 in majors. His best finish was a second to Vijay Singh in the 1998 PGA at Sahalee.

After coming within an inch of carding the first 62 in major history on Thursday, Stricker struggled to a 74 on Friday but kept himself in the mix with his putting on Saturday.

His par save on the final hole was a major boost that could prove the difference on Sunday.

"I wanted to make par in the worst way," he said of his up-and-down from over the pond on 18. "You know, I didn't want to give one back on the last hole. That just leaves a bad taste in your mouth at the end of the day. I really wanted to make that putt and get it up and down. I don't mind playing that hole that way, the way David Toms played to win back in 2001."

Considering the relative inexperience of the peloton and the treachery of the closing stretch on the Highlands Course, it really could be a free-for-all on Sunday. Anybody among the top 20 could post a number and walk away with the Wanamaker Trophy, perhaps drafting a dramatic conclusion that could make this PGA a classic instead of what seems to be a limited release.

"Somebody has done it every day, and you don't know who that person is going to be," said Stricker. "So it's out there, but you have to play some really good shots and some really great golf."

"This golf course is hard enough that, you know, it obviously doesn't really favor one kind of player," said Verplank.

If the PGA doesn't elevate some previously unknown newcomer, maybe it will be the aging star who finally gets his just reward.

Scott Michaux is the sports columnist and golf writer for the Augusta Chronicle and augusta.com.

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