By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- Don't expect a Charl Schwartzel-esque charge on Sunday as the 93rd PGA Championship winds to its conclusion.
Shoot, the man who wins the season's final major would likely be delighted with four straight pars -- much less the phenomenal quartet of birdies that the South African closed with at Augusta National as he won the Masters in April.
"These last four holes are going to decide this golf tournament," Schwartzel said with conviction, and the man certainly wasn't getting any arguments on Saturday afternoon.
The punishing stretch starts with a 253-yard par 3 and ends with what Adam Scott calls a "fiddly" 507-yarder that Keegan Bradley, who starts the final round one stroke off the lead, noted wryly is a "par 5 that we're playing as a par 4." Oh, and did we mention that water comes into play on three of the four holes -- Jim Furyk even hit into it twice at the 18th -- and those gaping, white fairway bunkers are nearly as penal?
When he finished off a round of 69 that included birdies at Nos. 16 and 17, the latter coming on a prayer of a 60-footer, and a knee-knocker from 18 feet for par on the final hole, Scott Verplank was asked if he could come up with a name for the brutal gauntlet. His simple response was also a primal one. "Can I cuss?" he asked.
The final four holes have played to cumulative average of 1.315 over par and the 18th, the one where David Toms laid up on Sunday and made a clutch par to seal his 2001 PGA title, will likely rank as the fourth toughest finishing hole in a major since 1983 when all is done. The scoring average through three rounds is 4.570 and it has yielded 121 bogeys, 37 double bogeys and 6 others while relinquishing just 25 birdies.
The two leaders, Jason Dufner and Brendan Steele, have yet to really feel the wrath of the final four holes, though. Dufner, who is looking for his first PGA TOUR victory, has played them in 3 under during the first three rounds -- making up an average of nearly 4 1/2 strokes on the field in the process. Only four other players remaining in the field are under par for the same stretch.
"All four of those holes set up pretty well for me," Dufner said in understatement. "... They all kind of shape right to left for me which is a good visual. I've been confident on those holes. I'm sure I've picked up a lot of strokes on the field on those holes playing them 3 under. So that can carry over to tomorrow. They're trouble holes, but for me, I'm feeling confident on those holes."
So is Steele, who fired a 66 in the third round to move into a tie at 7 under with Dufner. The PGA TOUR rookie reeled off 11 pars on the final four holes before tangling with one of the fairway bunkers at the 18th on Saturday, laying up and landing a lob wedge to 20 feet for the two-putt bogey.
But Steele knows the pressure will only rachet up on Sunday when someone steps to the 15th tee with the lead.
"You're really going to need to commit to the shots that you're hitting," Steele said. "Any sort of wishy-washy type play there is not going to get it done. ... If you're trying to be too safe you're going to be in trouble, but if you're being too aggressive you're going to be in trouble. So you've got to kind of take that conservative target, aggressive swing and hope all the work you've done will hold up and pay off."
"You're going to have to suck it up and hit a couple of really quality golf shots," Verplank agreed. "Not that you don't have to do that everywhere, but I think the way the golf course is, it emphasizes that coming down the stretch."
Adding to the challenge, none of the top seven players on the leaderboard, and just two among the top 12 who start the final round within five strokes of the lead, have ever won a major championship. Schwartzel's newly-tailored Green Jacket is likely hanging in his closet this week but it's been a decade since Toms lifted that 27-pound Wanamaker Trophy on this very site.
A year ago, Steele and Bradley were playing in the Nationwide Tour event in Springfield, Mo., the two good friends and practice round partners finishing 16th and 37th respectively. They've found great success as TOUR rookies, picking up their first titles earlier this year, but the PGA is their first major championship. Should either win he would be the first player to capture a major championship in his debut since Ben Curtis at the 2003 British Open.
Not to mention, Bradley and Steele would be the first player to win a major using a long putter. Steele went to his back in 2006 while Bradley went to his 46 1/2-inch belly model two-and-a-half years ago. "I'm a lifer," Pat Bradley's nephew said with a grin. But there are also other candidates for this unusual distinction in Scott, who trails by five, and Furyk who is six back.
The American drought of the last six majors could be poised to end, as well. Seven of the top 12 players on the leaderboard are from the United States with Denmark's Anders Hansen the highest-placed international player at 3 under and tied for sixth. Schwartzel, Sweden's Robert Karlsson and a pair of Aussies in Scott and John Senden are tied at 2 under and will make their bids to extend the futility of the Yanks on Sunday, too.
No matter where a player was born or how many majors he has or hasn't played in, the challenge in the final round will be the same. Respect the Atlanta Athletic Club and pick your spots to be aggressive. Minimize mistakes and you'll have a chance to pick up the career-defining victory.
"It's hard to put a number on it," said Steve Stricker, who has won more tournaments than any other player who has yet to find major glory and enters Sunday three off the pace. "I don't like to do that anyways, but you've going to have to play good golf. There's guys that can come from behind that have nothing to lose and then there's a lot of first-timers up at the top.
"I don't know how far back you've got to go to find a major champion."
Not to worry. That’s what Sunday is for.