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Keegan the Kid Ambushes the Fat Lady, Steals 2011 PGA Championship

By: Jay Flemma


[Editor's Note: Cybergolf's Jay Flemma reported from Atlanta Athletic Club during last week's PGA Championship. This is Jay's recap of Keegan Bradley's unlikely victory.]

The fat lady was wasn't just warming up, she was right there on the side of the stage, waiting for her cue to swoop on stage like a galleon in full sail, sing us all to sleep, and bring a merciful end to what was until then a dreadfully dull 93rd PGA Championship.

Then (thankfully!) first-time major competitor Keegan Bradley dropped a sandbag on her head, grabbed her spear and shield, skewered the hapless protagonists, seized the Wanamaker Trophy, and raced off stage to thunderous applause.

Thank you, Keegan! Until late Sunday afternoon, this PGA Championship had been a stink-bomb worthy of off-off-off-Broadway status. The set pieces were dreadful - Atlanta Athletic Club consistently underwhelmed for four days. At a major championship, the golf course is supposed to be Dom Perignon . . . we got Mad Dog 20/20.

The stars we paid big money to see turned out to be hams - flubbing their lines, missing their cues, tripping on stage and leaving everyone yawning, checking their watches and itching to leave. As the last group reached the 15th tee, a 34-year-old pro named Jason Dufner, who had never won on the PGA Tour, had a five-shot lead and every journalist in the house filed out of the media dining room to write their lead. The major championship season seemed doomed to go out with a whimper instead of a bang.

Then Bradley handed out the script edits to Act V and we had Shakespearean-in-magnitude drama on our hands.

Did he have help? And not just from Jason Dufner? Maybe. Perhaps when Dufner finally realized where he was, he was overcome with the enormity of the moment and when he broke, he broke hard and jagged, into pieces. Perhaps everyone spoke too soon, and the Golf Gods decided to make their presence known. One thing is certain, I personally witnessed two old sports superstitions come true yet again, as they invariably do . . .

Why does it always happen this way? Why is it that the minute a network posts a graphic about how well the leader is doing, he drops out of the sky like his parachute didn't open? How is it that the minute some lunkhead in the media center says, "Well at least we won't have a playoff," we get one, no matter how unlikely?

Well sure enough, it happened again: CBS posted the graphic, "Jason Dufner has not made a bogey all week at 15-18," while a pack of veteran golf writers said the dreaded "P-word" out loud, as in "at least we won't have a playoff." Seconds later, Dufner's ball splashed down in the lake like a NASA space capsule on re-entry, triggering a run of three consecutive bogeys. Meanwhile, Keegan Bradley did his best Steve Stricker imitation on Thursday and played the same stretch 2-under to force a tie.

Rewrite those leads, people.

This is the same run of holes - 15-18 - that the entire field played to an aggregate of 574 strokes over par over the course of the week. By comparison, the field played holes 1-14 only 489-over par.

Hey Keegan! Where did you think you were? TPC Summerlin? Maybe so, because he started lasering irons and rolling in bombs from across the greens on one of the most needlessly brutish stretches in Golfdom - The "Massacre Mile" - four holes that belong in a Hollywood slasher movie. After all, 15-18 produced a body count higher than the entire "Final Destination" series combined.

Along the way, the Keegan the Kid captured the hearts of the fans, the medi, and the PGA of America. Suddenly we had roars! Finally there was energy! Even though he tried to take the advice that Phil Mickelson, Dr. Bob Rotella and Camilo Villegas gave him about "Not getting into the result of winning this trophy or making a birdie or what it would mean to me," as he later said in his media center interview, there Bradley was charging around the 17th green after sinking a 35-footer for birdie. There he was fist pumping after firing a 7-iron to 2-and-a-half feet in the playoff at the 16th. And there he was raising his arms in exaltation while the fans exploded around him after the final putt fell.

Despite the dreariness of the first three and three-quarter days of "the major that begged to be forgotten" you couldn't help but fall in love with this kid. We saw what we always love to see in our sports heroes. Bradley showed us a fire in the belly that drives a champion to overcome adversity, even after a ghastly triple-bogey at 15 that by all rights should have buried him. We saw the grim determination in stiffing that approach on the first playoff hole, No. 16, to 2 feet mere seconds after Dufner almost holed out for an eagle in front of him. We saw the sincere joy in a life-long dream finally and unexpectedly achieved. And we saw grace and gratitude, honesty and humility.

Bradley is no longer an extra, a cameo appearance, or a bit player. He's not just a supporting role anymore, he's a star, a flat-out winner who seized this major by playing 16-18 in 3-under par, while everyone else sank like a stone all week. Now he has the largest and heaviest trophy in golf on his mantle and his whole life ahead of him.

"It feels unbelievable," a beaming Bradley gushed. "It seems like a dream and I'm afraid I'm going to wake up here in the next five minutes and it's not going to be real."

Indeed, it was unbelievable. He became only the third player in golf history to win a major championship in his first major appearance, joining Ben Curtis who one the 2003 British Open at St. Georges and the immortal Francis Ouimet, who claimed the 1913 U.S. Open as an amateur, defeating the greatest names of the age at the time. Bradley becomes the seventh player in a row to win his first major (the longest such streak in golf history), the 13th different winner of the last 13 major championships, and he breaks the string of six consecutive losses by American golfers (also the longest in golf history).

Is he an "off-brand" winner? Perhaps, but the kid's grit, passion and desire make him likeable. He's young, he's candid, he's introspective, he's respectful, and now he has experience in the crucible of a major championship. We may see him in the clutch again soon and often.

Meanwhile, you have to wonder what losing a gargantuan five-shot lead in a major in the last four holes will do to Dufner. It's one of the greatest collapses in major history - right up there with Jean Van de Valde at Carnoustie in '99 (three shots up on the 72nd hole), Arnold Palmer in '66 (seven shots in nine holes and six in six holes), and Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot (three shots in three holes and a frightful double-bogey at the last). Despite his trying to keep a stiff upper lip, this will hit Dufner much harder today and for a long while.

It's one thing to "let the bogeys go," as the mantra says. It's another thing all together to fumble the Wanamaker Trophy when the engraver has his tools in hand . . . or when the fat lady appears in the wings and waves at you.

In truth, without Bradley the entire tournament was a letdown. Luke Donald and Lee Westwood, Nos. 1 and 2 in the world, did what they are best at: they saved their finest golf in a major for when it didn't matter. When the spotlight burns brightest on them, they shrink from the moment, and when the game is lost, that's when they start to charge. Business as usual for them - hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.

How is it that for the first time in the 25-year history of the World Golf Rankings that both the No. 1 and 2 players have never won a major championship?

"Isn't that the $1 million question?" sighed one veteran writer from across the pond. "When they are in contention, it blows up in their face. Otherwise, they only make their move when it's too late. It's tough to take it easy it when you want to win so badly. And it's easy not to worry about what's going on around you when you don't feel the pressure."

That could also explain the record-long American drought that Bradley finally broke. The guys we rely on in big moments were nowhere to be found. Here are the scores of the other PGA champions who made the cut:

Phil Mickelson - (70 today, even-par total, tied for 19th)
Padraig Harrington - (74 today, 11-over par, tied for 64th)
Y.E. Yang - (74 today, 12-over par, tied for 69th)
Davis Love III - (79 today, 14-over par, tied for 72nd)
Shaun Micheel - (74 today, 15-over par, tied for 74th)

Like I said: Good thing the kid stole the show.

Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma 's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 420 nationally ranked public golf courses in 40 different states, and covered seven U.S. Opens and six PGA Championships, along with one trip to the Masters. A four-time award-winning sportswriter, Jay was called the best sports poet alive by both Sports Illustrated and NBC Sports writers and broadcasters. Jay has played about 3 million yards of golf - or close to 2,000 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf, PGA.com, Golf Magazine and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.