By Steve Eubanks, PGA.com Contributor
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- For those who looked at the leaderboard of this PGA Championship and gave a singsong cry of “boring,” the joke’s on you. Yes, for the casual fan, this looked like the Nationwide Tour’s Wichita Open for a while. But by the end of Sunday, it was one of the most exciting majors of the year.
For starters, it wasn’t Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner’s fault that they were the last men standing. The strongest field in golf teed off on Thursday, including the likes of Luke Donald, Lee Westwood, Martin Kaymer and 100 of the top 102 in the World Golf Ranking. The fact that Dufner and Bradley posted the lowest 72-hole score doesn’t make it a bad tournament, especially since the winning total of 8-under-par 272 was exactly the number most players predicted would win at the beginning of the week.
This was a wild and woolly one by any measure. First there was the Rory Wrist and the Tiger Rap, a week that saw one major champion come within a three-inch tree root of ruining the most promising career in the game, and the former best player in the game shoot himself out of a comeback with his worst opening-round performance in major championship history.
Rory McIlroy made the cut, shooting rounds of 70 and 73 before limping through the weekend with a pair of 74s. “To be honest, I’m glad to be done,” McIlroy said late on Sunday afternoon. “I basically played 70 holes of this tournament not at 100 percent, so it was always going to be tough.”
He also finished the week more aware of wrist and forearm anatomy. “The pronator muscle is still a little sore, and going up into the medial ligament up into the inside of the elbow,” he said, pointing out the area like an orthopedist giving a lecture.
Then there was Tiger, and the bizarre showing he made hitting one crooked shot after another. He hit 22 bunkers – 11 fairway and 11 greenside in two rounds – and only saved par from the sand four times. Not only was this his worst performance in a major (five club professionals beat him), but Tiger’s abysmal play means he didn’t qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs or the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai. His next event will be the Australian Open in mid-November. Until then, Tiger will play corporate outings in Asia. Really.
There were a few more moments where fate could have turned another way. David Toms threw us all into the Way Back machine by getting to within four shots of the lead in the final nine.
Then came Robert Karlsson, the son of a champion pistol shooter who used to make cold porridge out of wheat sprouts that he would cultivate in hotel bathrooms. He also has attended psychotherapy sessions where participants cannot talk for a week, and he enjoys improvisational psychodramas with terminally ill cancer patients. A recent migrant to Charlotte, North Carolina, Karlsson inched to within two shots of the lead in the final going before falling back with bogeys at 16, 17 and 18.
So, we didn’t have what experts might call a marquee ratings bonanza, but we did have a gutsy thrill-a-minute finish.
Forget the anticlimactic playoff where Dufner missed a 5-footer for birdie on 16 and three-putted 17. Focus on the positives. Keegan Bradley is the first player in recorded history to make a triple bogey in the final nine holes of a major and go on to win the tournament.
And it was an ugly triple. He avoided the water on the long par-three with his tee shot. In fact, he hit it pin high, but in the left rough. But the next shot was a thin bullet that scooted past the flag at warp speed and plopped over the rock wall into the hazard. His walk back to the drop zone was 105 yards, far enough away to run the full gauntlet of emotions.
“I just kept telling myself, don’t let that hole define my whole tournament,” Bradley said. “I had played so well and I gutted out rounds and I just didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who tripled that hole and went on to bogey in or something. I kept telling myself to just pretend that nothing happened.”
But something did happen. Bradley ripped the best drive of the week on 16 and made birdie. Then on 17, he made another birdie. On 18, his hand was shaking so badly that he could barely hold his water bottle, but he gutted it out with a crucial two-putt par that could have won it for him outright has Duffner not made a stellar par of his own.
This wasn’t the Boise Open. This was a major championship with major play. Bradley birdied the first playoff hole as well, fully erasing the triple that he had already put out of his mind. Two pars on the remaining playoff holes were enough.
“It seems like a dream,” he said as he gazed at the Wanamaker Trophy. “I’m afraid I’m going to wake up here in the next five minutes and it’s not going to be real.”
It was real alright. In the end, it was a real good major championship.