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Unlikely showdown at PGA ends well for Bradley

by | CBSSports.com Senior Writer
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JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- By all means, select your favorite absurdity.

To begin with, unflappable rookie Keegan Bradley became only the second player in 98 years to win one of golf's hallowed Grand Slam titles in his very first try, which, in an era of unsurpassed depth, is jarring and impressive enough.

Then there's the not-so-little part about Bradley being five strokes down with three holes left to play at the 93rd PGA Championship, a deficit that makes the national debt look about as serious as a bounced check at Walmart.

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In the span of an other-worldly hour, Bradley's chances of winning at brutish Atlanta Athletic Club ran a completely unforeseeable gamut, morphing from impossible, to inconceivable, to improbable, eventually giving Bradley one of the unlikeliest wins in major championship history.

Seemingly dead in the water -- literally -- after bashing a pitch shot into a pond on the 15th hole to result in a triple-bogey, Bradley pulled off the greatest golfing Hail Mary in decades, playing the final three holes of regulation in 2 under and then winning a playoff with Jason Dufner.

"This guy is the gutsiest player I have ever worked for," caddie Steven Hale said, his voice cracking with emotion. "There's no quit."

If Bradley had raised the white flag of surrender, nobody would have blinked. After the six on the par-3 15th, Bradley was five strokes behind Dufner, who looked every bit like Ben Hogan reincarnated -- splitting fairways and throwing darts into greens in unerring fashion. In an attention-grabbing display, Dufner had found the putting surface or fringe on 37 of 39 greens over parts of three rounds when all sorts of pell-mell hell broke out.

It was the golf equivalent of the 1982 Stanford-Cal football game, and in this instance, Bradley had the ball and Dufner was the trombone player who got buried at the goal line.

"It just seems like a dream and that I'm going to wake up in five minutes and it's not going to be real," Bradley gushed.

Keegan Bradley's reaction to winning is almost subdued when you consider the fantastic circumstances of the PGA's final round. (AP)  
Keegan Bradley's reaction to winning is almost subdued when you consider the fantastic circumstances of the PGA's final round. (AP)  
Witnesses had their credulity stretched to the breaking point. Bradley was trying mightily to keep pace with Dufner when he missed the par-3 15th green and found his ball in thick Bermuda rough. He chipped out, then watched helplessly as the ball rolled into the pond. The triple-bogey left him five down.

Behind him on the tee, Dufner watched it all happen -- then rinsed his tee shot to give everybody a glimmer of hope.

"I just kept telling myself, don't let that hole define the tournament," Bradley said. "Just pretend nothing happened."

Here's to delusions of grandeur. With Dufner making a bogey behind him, Bradley rolled in a short birdie putt on the 16th and then slammed home a 25-footer on the 17th, and when Dufner bogeyed Nos. 16 and 17, they were tied. Incredibly, Dufner had played the fateful, final four-hole stretch in 3-under over the first three days.

He never let up in the three-hole aggregate playoff, either. After starting on the 16th, Dufner nearly holed his approach shot, the ball missing the cup by an inch and rolling five feet past. All Bradley did was knock it even closer, to about three feet, and unlike Dufner, he shoved the ball into the hole with his belly-putter for his third birdie in four holes.

But there was no question, the flashpoint came at the 15th, when Bradley, a 25-year-old who had never played in a PGA Tour event before this season, somehow shook off the shocking effect of the triple-bogey and came back throwing haymakers.

"I don't know what was in his head, but when we were on the 16th, I heard that Dufner had hit it in the water on 15," Hale said. "I kept thinking, 'Keep grinding.'"

Hale's nickname is Pepsi, a tag he picked up when working on the Nationwide Tour, where he stashed colas in the bushes around the course so he'd have something to drink during the round.

Sunday, Pepcid was more like it.

Hale said he has a sense that Bradley might ram in the putt on the 17th to pull even, because he had hit the cup on 60-footers earlier in the round, on the fourth and 11th holes.

"You kind of had a sense something was going to happen," Hale said.

Not everybody was feeling similarly. In fact, Dufner looked like Retief Goosen after a lobotomy and taxidermy, coolly ambling down the fairways and dissecting every green. He looked utterly imperturbable. Until he wasn't.

Bradley, whose aunt, Pat, won six LPGA majors, looked like a guy who had been born to the task. Other than Francis Ouimet at the 1913 U.S. Open, the only other player to win a major in his first try was Ben Curtis at the 2003 British Open. It just doesn't happen like this.

It was good to the last gasp. Even when leading by two shots in the cumulative playoff, Bradley's approach on the water-strewn 18th cleared the water by perhaps two yards. PGA of America chief Joe Steranka, standing next to the Wanamaker Trophy and preparing for the presentation, turned to an underling when the ball barely cleared the hazard and said, "Oh, my goodness gracious."

Exactly. I might have added a few hyphenated words to emphasize the point, but that about covered the mood as the crowd nearly fainted.

As Bradley was walking up the 18th hole to finish off the playoff, his nephew Aiden was sound asleep in front of a TV monitor near the clubhouse cart barn, oblivious to it all and the presence of his uncle's picture on the screen. Bradley's sister Madison rushed to wake him up and hustled him off to the 18th green to revel in the family's latest major.

Aiden is 10 months old, so even though his eyes were wide open, it was all a bit over his head. As for his uncle, who knows? Bradley already has two victories in eight short months on the PGA Tour, both of them in playoffs.

Rookies, not to mention Grand Slam virgins, don't do these things, especially when facing such daunting odds down the stretch. Hale was uncertain whether Bradley had firmly grasped the significance of what he had accomplished, or if he was just swimming along in a pool of blithe naivety.

"You know what," Hale said deftly, "let's let the next 10 or 15 years answer that question."

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