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In the swing: Lesser lights combine to produce thrilling PGA finale

Even if you’d never heard of Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner, the climax of the season’s final Major was one to savour, writes Neil Cullen.

Image: Charlie Riedel/AP/Press Association Images

THAT WAS MOST unexpected.

I’m not just talking about surprise-winner Keegan Bradley, but the way the final round of the USPGA Championship unravelled was one of the great final rounds to a Major, even if many of the protagonists were relatively unknown.

After the Masters earlier in the year — where Charl Schwartzel birdied the last four holes to pip Jason Day, Adam Scott, Luke Donald, Geoff Ogilvy and Tiger Woods; with Rory McIlroy’s spectacular collapse; and where no fewer than eight players held the lead over the course of the final day — most golf fans would have confidently asserted that a more exciting Major this year there would not be.

Rory McIlroy’s US Open victory was great to watch, but it was a procession.

There was no drama. People were wondering whether he might collapse like at the Masters, but really he was so far ahead that it would have taken an almighty implosion, and given how well he played that week, that was never really going to happen.

Darren Clarke’s British Open victory also made for intriguing viewing, but after Phil Mickelson’s challenge faded on the 12th hole, it was full steam ahead for Clarke. When Dustin Johnson then put one out of bounds on the 14th, the tournament was essentially over.

Unexpectedly brilliant

The final Major of the year was unexpectedly brilliant, even if the leaderboard may not have been that appetising.

Let’s be honest, before this season, who had heard of Keegan Bradley? I certainly hadn’t, but as well as the USPGA Championship and the Byron Nelson Championship he won earlier this year in Dallas, there’s a good chance he’ll be adding Rookie of the Year to his CV.

Going in to the final round, Bradley was a shot behind joint leader Jason Dufner and Brendan Steele, with Scott Verplank, Steve Stricker, Anders Hansen and D.A. Points following close behind.

They aren’t the type of guys we’re going to be getting over excited about, but the drama of the final day, particularly the final nine holes, was palpable.

At the beginning of the day, the main issue was whether the guys at the top had the experience to see it out, and whether any of the chasing pack could go deep enough to post a score that would spike the nerves of the leaders.

Brendan Steele faded early with four early bogeys. Never the way you want to start the Sunday of a Major.

Robert Karlsson went the other way. The big Swede played the first 10 holes in four under, and all of a sudden he was right in it.

Then came the moment of magic, a stunning approach into the par-five 12th with yielded an eagle and got him to eight under.

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That score would have got him into the playoff, but as we saw on a number of occasions yesterday, Atlanta Athletic Club really bears its teeth over the final four holes. Karlsson finished up with three successive bogeys. A warning sign to all those behind him.

Keegan Bradley made an eagle of his own at the 12th, while Dufner made a crucial birdie putt so keep himself just in the lead, but things really began to change from 15 onwards.

Keegan Bradley chipped his second shot from the rough across the green and into the water at 15. The resulting double-bogey gave Jason Dufner a five-shot lead with four holes to play.

Momentum swing

In most golf tournaments, on most golf courses, you’d put the sun, moon and stars on a player with a five shot lead with four holes to play. Not at Atlanta Athletic Club though.

Dufner, having stuck the ball particularly well over the course of the tournament, found water off the tee at the 15th. In fact, he held a brilliant putt for bogey. Even though it was a bogey, it was a massive putt to save himself from a double-bogey.

Up ahead, Bradley wasn’t giving up. A birdie on 16 followed by a massive putt for birdie on 17 brought him right back into it.

Dufner lost his way and bogeyed 16 and 17. Momentum swinging stuff.

Others threatened. Scott Verplank lurked, David Toms hunted, Anders Hansen had a go. But in the end it was all about Keegan Bradley.

The way he picked himself up from the double-bogey at 15 was massive. To follow it up with two birdies showed tremendous courage.

By the time the playoff came around, we’d been through the mill of drama. Given the two players involved, Dufner and Bradley, I was debating whether I’d even stay up and watch it, but the prospect of more drama being thrown up by the golf course persuaded me to stay.

Bradley had the momentum from regulation play and kept that going, while Dufner just wasn’t quite as sharp.

The big test for Bradley is for him to consolidate his form this season into next. Whatever happens to him over the next months and years, he’ll be doing very well to top the drama, excitement and emotion of the 2011 USPGA Championship.

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