Dufner implodes with victory in sight to give Bradley his chance

 

Atlanta Athetlic Club

America at last has another major champion champion to hail, although absolutely nobody in this vast country would have suspected that a Tour rookie would be their man. Young Keegan Bradley became just the second player since 1913 to win a major on his first attempt when prevailing in dramatic circumstances.

Bradley beat Jason Dufner in a three-hole play-off after being five shots down with just three holes remaining. Dufner, a 34-year-old who has been a pro 11 years, has yet to win a title of any description and after this bitter experience may never do so. For so long he looked the certain champion, but his nerve failed him on the notorious stretch of the Atlanta Athletic Club.

What scenes the 93rd USPGA witnessed. Thanks to three-bogeys by Dufner and two birdies from Bradley the championship went into extra time. With a birdie on the first play-off hole, Bradley claimed a lead he was never to lose. His look of disbelief when he tapped in on the 18th was emulated the world over.

The 25-year-old came into the event a 200-1 outsider, ranked 108th in the world. He had shown his quality when winning The Memorial in May. But this was something else; this was his first major and only Ben Curtis, at the 2003 Open, had dared to be a champion major debutant since Francis Ouimet at the US Open 98 years ago. Bradley's fairytale was entirely fitting on the 20th anniversary of John Daly's USPGA breakthrough.

It was inevitable Bradley would conquer Dufner in the shootout. He had all the momentum, his opponent was already loaded down with the "what onlys". After going through the front nine in two-under, 12 footers on the 12th and 13th saw Dufner pull clear. And when Keegan treble-bogeyed the 15th, first finding the water, then chipping through the green from the dropzone, Dufner's victory seemed assured. Indeed, on the betting exchanges Bradley was suddenly out to 270-1, while Dufner was unbackable.

By now Robert Karlsson's dreams of becoming the first Swede to win a major had scuppered. How tantalising they seemed when he eagled the 12th. But bogeys on the last three did for him and Anders Hansen, from Denmark, was left to claim the top Euro honours finishing on seven-under, following a brilliant 66 which left him just one agonising shot outside the play-off.

There was always the chance the finishing stretch which none other than Tiger Woods labelled "the toughest in golf", would produce high drama. And so it proved. Bradley courageously struck back from his disaster on the 15th by long-putt birdies on the 16th and the 17th. At the same time, Dufner's previous serenity was crumbling as he bogeyed the 15th after also dumping it the drink – a 15-footer actually limiting the damage – and then bogeying the 16th when visiting a greenside bunker. In the space of 20 minutes the four-shot lead had dwindled to one. How would Dufner cope?

He squeezed his ball over the lake guarding the par-three 17th, but then three-putted from 40 feet. Up ahead, Keegan valiantly made his four on the treacherous 18th. Surely Dufner would crumble. Credit to him, he regained his composure to hit the fairway, then negotiate the water in front of the green, then two putt from 30 feet. A three-hole play-off awaited. Keegan grabbed the opportunity for life-changing glory, birdieing the 16th, parring the 17th and 18th. Poor Dufner looked a broken man.

So America's record-breaking barren run of six majors is over; as is the stat which said that nobody with a long-putter had ever won a major before. The purists will not be happy. A few other golfing streaks were destined to be continued, however. Bradley was the seventh first-time major winner in a row; the last 13 majors would have produced 13 different winners. With the struggles of Woods, the game is in a state of flux. While the experts might moan, nobody can deny that the uncertainty is as exciting as it is intriguing.

Luke Donald and Lee Westwood were left to rue another missed opportunity in the majors. Both flattered to deceive yesterday. After 12 holes and four birdies Donald got to within two of Dufner, with Westwood just the one behind after his own advance. But the former visited the water on the 15th and the latter continued his torture on the greens.

"I didn't have my best this week and I still came reasonably close," said Donald, after a 68 left him alongside Westwood on three-under. "You know, I know I've got the game to win majors, but got to take that it as a positive. But again, it's bittersweet. It's another major gone, another year gone without winning a major."

Westwood was almost at his best in terms of tee-to-green play, but in terms of putting this was close to his worse. "I played lovely again today, although I felt like I stroked it a little bit better on the greens," said Westwood, following his 68. "Having said that, I missed twice inside six feet in the first five holes."

So Westwood, the undisputed holder of the "best never to win..." tag, must carry on the wait. As must his country, which has not won a USPGA in a century. "When I turn up to the majors and I don't win then it's a disappointment for everybody it seems," said the 38-year-old. "Obviously it is for me, but that's the sort of level of golf I'm playing at."

Ups and downs: How they fared on the final day in Atlanta

Shank of the day

Famed for mounting final-day surges, Phil Mickelson started the day on par and would have wanted a good start to have any chance of victory. The 2005 champion's drive off the first tee wasn't encouraging, hitting way left into the trees, leaving him fishing about in the shrubbery.

Outfit of the day

Once again, Rickie Fowler lit up the course with a full-length bright orange ensemble, looking like a walking advertisement for Tropicana. Eyebrows were not the only things raised yesterday, as he also posted his best round of the tournament, 68, to finish on six over par.

Shot of the day

As mentioned, the first hole claimed a few casualties on the final day. Not so for Sergio Garcia, though, who found himself in a bunker down the right but played a beautiful shot out of the sand to reach the front of the green, from where he got up and down. A big cheer ensued – Sergio remains a shot-maker, if not a champion.

USPGA scores

Leading early final-round scores from Atlanta Athletic Club (US unless stated):

-8 K Bradley, J Dufner Bradley won in play-off

-7 A Hansen (Den)

-5 R Karlsson (Swe), D Toms, S Verplank

-4 A Scott (Aus)

-3 L Westwood (Eng), L Donald (Eng)

Selected others:

-1 C Schwartzel (SA)

+11 R McIlroy (NIrl)

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