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PGA champ Bradley ends American drought

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PGA champ Bradley ends American drought

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Keegan Bradley was the first American to win one of golfing's majors in seven tries

Take that, Northern Ireland!

Finally, American golf can show its face in public again.

The PGA Championship, at last, was won by someone who knows the rules of baseball and celebrates Thanksgiving. That’s no small fact. After Phil Mickelson won the Masters back in 2010, Ulstermen and South Africans and Germans won the next six majors. You know, guys who follow rugby and soccer and sports on odd cable channels in the U.S.

Talk about our national debt: add major championship golf to the woes that plague our nation’s balance sheets.

But no more! Along comes a lean, mean fighting machine with the very unintimidating name of Keegan Bradley, who brings the whole package to the table: Youth (25 and a rookie); Cinderella’s resume (his first major championship entry); wins (two now, including May’s Byron Nelson); a back story (nephew of LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley); and late Sunday afternoon courage to spare.

After a dream-wrecking triple bogey on the 15th hole at the Atlanta Athletic Club, Bradley was an astounding five shots back of the leader, Jason (What, Me Worry?) Dufner. But like John Belushi’s Bluto in “Animal House,” Bradley rallied when nobody believed, stuffing an approach on 16 tight for a birdie, punctuating it with an energized fist-pump, then did the unthinkable, rolling in a 700-foot (or thereabouts) major curler on 17 for birdie to pull within one.

Should Bradley make good on a tantalizing young career, the putt on 17 will be the lead shot in his highlight reel for years to come. It took so long to reach the hole, Bradley had time to take one, two, three, four, FIVE paces as he raised his putter high and – yes! – exulted again with the fist pump of exuberant youth.

When Dufner would bogey the same hole minutes later, and both would par 18 with man-sized efforts on the most intimidating finishing hole in 2011’s major championship golf schedule, we had our guarantee: An American would win a major.

The 2011 PGA Championship would be forever known with the subtitle: “Glory’s Last Shot: The End of American Shame.”

Who would be the hoister of Old Glory? Would it be Dufner the Flat-Liner, the chubby, tobacco-chewing Auburn University War Eagle who’d never won on the PGA Tour? Or Bradley the Adrenalized, the red-shirted St. John’s grad and Vermont native who loves his Boston Red Sox and whose only visible failing is his unsightly use of a belly putter?

Truth was, for golf at large, and for American golf especially, Bradley would be the better story.

This is not to suggest that Dufner, whose zombie-like state on Sunday had the CBS team befuddled, bothered and bewildered, wasn’t a likeable story. He was. His waggles were mesmerizing, and there was a quiet beauty to the way he’d hold his follow-through on shots he enjoyed. But at 34, a bit out of shape and lacking obvious pizzazz, the post-Tiger Era would likely glance right past him.

Keegan Bradley, on the other hand, offered the opposite: Natural talent in a lanky, Dustin Johnson-like frame; a Rory McIlroy-esque freshness and appeal; and the distinct whiff of a fighter’s mentality, a hard-charging game for a new generation. Most important, on Sunday he packaged all those qualities on the biggest stage under the brightest lights.

It wasn’t just his birdie-birdie-par finish after his triple bogey on 15. Consider, also, his eagle on the par-5 No. 12, a muscular bit of golf with a punished drive and pureed iron to about three feet. Up in the booth, Jim Nantz’s exclamation of joy was almost boyish.

And in the playoff, he answered Dufner’s stoney approach on 16 with an even stonier approach. Even better, when Dufner missed his birdie try, Bradley made his. It was golf with a flourish, and chock full of the momentum of a winner.

Or, as Steve Elkington tweeted after Bradley won the playoff: “Bradley has more sack than the top 10 in the world combined.”

The golf world loves two things: The Big Star, and The Next Big Thing. So if Tiger wasn’t going to win the PGA Championship (cough, cough), or if Rory (The Wrist) McIlroy wasn’t, or Phil (Remember Me?) Mickelson wasn’t, it’s best if the guy who won is brimming with promise.

Keegan Bradley, right down to his new generation first name, his athletic, aggressive move, and a game free of scar tissue, brims with said promise.

If only we could somehow hide the belly putter from the kid. It’s such a bad look. When it comes to ending the American drought, I guess, beggars can’t be choosers.

Scorecard of the week

70-65-68-69 – 8-under 272, Jason Dufner, tie-1st (regulation), loser in playoff, PGA Championship, Atlanta Athletic Club, Johns Creek, Ga.

Dufner spent all of Sunday fascinating viewers by trying to be the first player to win a major championship for the country of Catatonia. His placid demeanor made placid people everywhere look jittery and addled.

When the game’s devastating fates threw haymakers at him – a bad lie, an unseen break in a putt, an unfortunate kick – Dufner’s reaction was the same.

That is to say, he had no reaction.

The CBS broadcasters were flummoxed. Verne Lundquist wondered if Dufner could smile. Gary McCord surmised that Lady Gaga’s song “Poker Face” was written about Dufner. David Feherty, of course, had a ball, guessing that aliens had abducted Dufner and replaced him with a robot, and also noting that Dufner appeared to be just waking from a coma – a “wonderful” state in which to play golf.

I had my Dufner storyline at the ready: The American drought was broken by an American from our classic leading man tradition, that Dufner was stealing a page from the stoic hero Gary Cooper, an emotionless cowboy rescuing the girl tied up on the railroad tracks.

And with a four-shot lead and four holes to play, surely the Dufner storyline was the story of the week. Right? Right?

Ah, golf, the fickle mistress.

Seven holes later, including three playoff holes, Dufner was the object of tweets like Dan Jenkins’ offering, which wondered if Dufner’s collapse should be placed “somewhere between Jean van de Velde and Ed Sneed at Augusta in ’79.”

When the Ancient Twitterer is placing you in the Historical Collapse file, it’s a tough Sunday evening.

To recap: Dufner pushed his tee shot on the par-3 15th right, into the drink. Of course, this is a severe no-no, but then again, you try hitting the fat of the green from 260 yards out when your palms are sweaty. Put it this way: 154 players made bogey or worse at the second hardest hole of the week. Only 21 made birdie. Dufner actually did quite well to make bogey there, and left with a three-shot lead.

To 16, where Dufner’s mistake was his second shot, into the right greenside bunker. He couldn’t get up and down – on a hole where Bradley made an energized birdie moments earlier – and left with a two-shot lead.

Then, at 17, Dufner had to watch from the tee box as Bradley rolled in that two-mile birdie, that five-pace, putter-raised, crowd-rattling birdie. Dufner’s answer? A nervous birdie putt cruised past the hole, a comebacker was too far to make, and a third consecutive bogey.

Still, he made a super-sized par on 18 amid all the pressure in the world to force a playoff, and then striped a drive and an iron to six feet on 16 on the first hole.

From there? Well … as my Dad always told me: Golf is the devil’s own game.

The miss at 16, and another bogey at 17 wasn’t enough to offset a clutch birdie on 18 and Bradley’s birdie-par-par playoff. Dufner would sink to the ocean floor amid other major championship wreckage.

It wasn’t Dustin Johnson shooting 82 at Pebble, or Nick Watney shooting 81 at Whistling Straits, or Rory McIlroy shooting 80 at Augusta National, but somehow, it was even worse.

Our ace producer at KNBR in San Francisco, where I co-host the morning “Murph and Mac” show, is a die-hard Auburn Tiger, a War Eagle man to the core, and he cares not a whit about golf. But Dufner’s emergence had my War Eagle pal all fired up, and the cries of “War Eagle!” from AU fanatics all over the golf course for Dufner warmed my man’s blue-and-orange innards.


At least they’ll always have Cam Newton, right? (Pending NCAA investigations, natch.)

Mulligan of the week

• While we’re on the topic, the Mully of the Week appeared to be a slam-dunk with only three holes left. Surely, it would be Keegan Bradley’s skulled chip into the water on 15, leading to a triple bogey that gave Dufner an impenetrable lead. The way Bradley stared at his golf ball as it scurried across the green, as if it were late for an appointment with the water hazard, was at the time, an unforgettable image of a golfer watching his dream evaporate.

But then!

Bradley wouldn’t win Mully of the Week honors, after all.

In the end, we have to go back to the first playoff hole. Bradley had all the momentum in the world in forcing the playoff, and his body language said as much. Dufner looked … well, Dufner looked like he always looked – half-asleep – but you knew he had to be dying.

So, when Dufner smoked his tee shot on 16, the first playoff hole, then rifled that iron to 6 feet, he was back in the driver’s seat. Never mind that Bradley, the young stud, put his approach inside of Dufner. Dufner could still pour that birdie putt home and let the young’un know what was up.

Instead … he missed it.

It was a tentative stroke all the way, a sort of push-stop that smacked of a man not committed to the moment.

When Bradley calmly sank his birdie, Dufner’s Eagle lost its War.

So in the interest of pushing that competition to an even higher level, and forcing those two combatants to keep on keepin’ on, let’s march back out to the 16th green, place Dufner’s ball six feet out again and … give that man a mulligan!

Broadcast moment of the week

“Oh, my aching nerves.” – David Feherty, CBS, during the Bradley-Dufner playoff.

The 2011 PGA Championship was the darndest thing. For three and a half days, it was the object of derision, scorn and grousing. Golf fans wondered: What IS this leader board? Where are the names? Where is the star power? And why, in the holy name of Alister Mackenzie, is every hole a forced 250-yard carry over water?

Then, presto, just like that – a classic major championship finish was born.

It was like going to a dinner party, and seeing black smoke pour out of the kitchen, hearing dishes break – only to have the hot hostess of the dinner party emerge with a spectacular lobster/steak combo, washed down with a vintage Napa Valley wine.

Like everyone else, I ripped the lack of star power at Atlanta Athletic Club, and like everyone else, I thought Rees Jones’ re-do of the golf course made play so hazard-laden and penal, it opened the door for a fluky finish.

And then that final hour came, and all was forgiven.

Gone were any complaints of too many double bogeys. Gone was the Saturday ennui that seemed to engulf the CBS broadcast. Gone were thoughts of Tiger Woods (who?), or Rory McIlroy (punch out to the fairway next time, kid) or the dominant Europeans (still waiting, Lee and Luke and company).

Instead, we had Keegan Bradley reaching deep for golf he maybe never knew he had, and we had Jason Dufner having to stare down demons he maybe never knew he had.

In the end, it was awesome theatre. And so in the end, we were all wrong.

In a knee-jerk, Facebooking, tweeting society, maybe sometimes the lesson is to wait a little bit. You never know what might come along.

Where do we go from here?

• Geez, I can hardly think straight after that epic PGA Championship, but indeed, there is golf this week in Greensboro. The Wyndham Championship is the final full-field event before the FedEx Cup playoffs begin next week, and that means Tiger has one last chance to qualify for the top 125.

Only, he won’t.

Tiger told reporters he has family commitments that preclude him from entering, so the reeling legend will now miss the rest of the PGA Tour season. His freefall has become unthinkably bad, conjuring up comparisons to David Duval (a golf game disappeared) and Mike Tyson (an aura of invincibility disappeared).

Jason Dufner is entered in the Wyndham. If you see him, go easy on him. He gave us a great show.

Keegan Bradley, on the other hand, is taking the week off. My suggestion to the young lad: Cue up that DVD replay of the final three holes of regulation. You’ll like what you see, kid.

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