JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — In a major with names hard to remember, Keegan Bradley delivered a comeback difficult to forget.
Five shots behind with three holes to play in the PGA Championship, Bradley made back-to-back birdies to begin his rally. Equally stunning was the collapse from Jason Dufner, who was flawless on the home stretch until Sunday, when he made three straight bogeys with the Wanamaker Trophy on the line.
Bradley won a three-hole playoff, making him only the third player in at least 100 years to win a major in his first try.
He also became the first player to win a major with a long putter — a belly putter — and it proved to be the most important club in his bag. Bradley rattled in a 35-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole in regulation to keep alive his chances, then showed the perfect touch with a two-putt across the 18th green for a par to close out a 2-under 68.
Dufner, now winless in 148 starts on the PGA Tour, stooped over on the 18th fairway in the playoff before hitting his final shot, knowing that he had thrown away his best chance at finally winning — in a major, no less.
And so ended the final major of the year — a guy in a red shirt pumping his fists along the back nine of Atlanta Athletic Club, providing excitement that the PGA Championship had been missing until the final hour.
Until then, this major had been remembered for Tiger Woods missing the cut by six shots and looking lost as ever, and for U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy hitting a tree root in the opening round and playing the rest of the week with his right wrist heavily taped.
Bradley, best known until now as the nephew of LPGA great Pat Bradley, was No. 108 in the world after having won the Byron Nelson Championship earlier this year in a sudden-death playoff, again after the leaders had faded on the closing holes.
This makes seven straight majors won by players who had never before captured a Grand Slam event, the longest streak in history.
“He’s got a good pedigree with Pat Bradley in the family,” Dufner said. “I’m sure he’s picked up a few things from her about winning, attitude and golf in general. He’s probably got a pretty strong future out here.”
Bradley now moves to No. 29 in the world, and ends the longest American drought in the majors at six tournaments. Phil Mickelson had been the last American at the 2010 Masters, and perhaps that’s only fitting.
Mickelson has been playing money games during practice rounds at the big tournaments with Bradley, wanting him to be prepared to play for something more prestigious than cash. The kid must have taken the lessons to heart.
He never gave up when he had every reason to do just that.
Bradley was two shots behind when he arrived at the pivotal stretch of the course. From left of the 15th green, he hit an aggressive chip that came out too hot and rolled into the water, leading to a triple bogey. That put him five shots behind with three to play.
Dufner watched it all unfold from high on the hill as he waited on the 15th tee, his lead suddenly up to four shots over Anders Hansen, who was in the process of making bogey. Dufner, so unflappable all day, had played the ferocious four-hole closing stretch in a combined 3 under for the first three days without every making bogey.
This was different. This was Sunday.
Dufner, for the first time showing even a trace of emotion, winced slightly when he saw the flight of his tee shot. It found the pond to the right of the green, yet he poured in a 12-foot putt to at least escape with bogey. His lead was still four shots, and when he split the middle of the 16th fairway, he seemed to be on his way.
Then came an unlikely chain of events.
Bradley stuffed his shot into 8 feet for birdie on the 16th. Behind him in the final group, Dufner hit into the right bunker, blasted out to 10 feet and made bogey. Now his lead was down to two shots.
Dufner arrived on the 17th tee in time to watch as Bradley rattled in a 35-foot putt, pumping his fists as his caddie stood behind the hole holding the flag over his head with both arms. Dufner did well to find the middle of the green for what appeared to be a safe two-putt par. But he ran his first putt 10 feet by the hole and three-putted for bogey.
Just like that, they were tied.
With the pressure as great as it had been all day, both played the 18th the same way — dry. Both had long two-putts for par from one side of the green to the other. They finished at 8-under 272.
Dufner’s 5-iron on the opening hole of the playoff — the uphill 16th — came within an inch of hitting the hole and stopped 6 feet away. Bradley answered with a shot into 4 feet and made the birdie, while Dufner missed his putt.
On the 17th, Dufner again three-putted for bogey to give Bradley a two-shot lead going to the 18th. The final drama for Bradley was watching his 6-iron descend toward the green, clearing the lake with not much room to spare. Dufner rolled in a birdie, but by then it was too late to recover from his mistakes.
“I’m so new at this situation, I don’t know if I appreciate it as much as I will — soon,” Dufner said. “I might look back in 10 or 15 years and be disappointed if I never get another chance.”
They finished one shot ahead of Hansen, whose lone bogey of the final round — on the 16th hole — kept him out of the playoff. The Dane closed with a 66, matching the best score of the final round.
The group tied for fourth included 2001 champion David Toms (67) and two others who stayed in the game until the very end.
Robert Karlsson got within one shot of the lead with a 5-foot eagle putt on the 12th hole. The Swede never made another birdie, though, and finished with three straight bogeys for a 67. Scott Verplank holed out a bunker shot on the 16th and was tied with Bradley going to the 17th, but his tee shot bounced off the wall and into the water for a double bogey. He closed with a 70.