JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Jason Dufner never showed much emotion at the PGA Championship. Not when he had the Wanamaker Trophy in the bag. Not when he threw it all away.
As the sun set on Atlanta Athletic Club, he just seemed numb.
Dufner wound up on the wrong end of one of the greatest comebacks in major championship history Sunday. Keegan Bradley overcame a five-shot deficit with three holes left in regulation, then beat Dufner in a three-hole playoff.
"I'm so new at this situation, I don't know if I appreciate it as much as I will," Dufner said, quickly adding, "soon."
The 34-year-old Dufner had not made a cut since late May and he'd never won on the PGA Tour — yet, here he was, on cusp of winning one of the biggest events of all. He was playing textbook golf for the tough setup, keeping his ball in the fairway better than anyone and rolling the ball with poise and confidence on the greens.
He strolled the grounds like he owned the place, occasionally cracking a bit of a smile but mostly just staring straight ahead, as if this was his destiny.
Dufner went to the 15th tee four strokes ahead of the field and five up on Bradley, who had just made triple bogey at the par-3 hole after knocking his second shot in the water.
But three straight bogeys by Dufner and two straight birdies by Bradley forced a playoff. Dufner might have erased all the bad karma with his second shot of the playoff, a laser from the fairway that nearly went in for eagle. The ball slid about an inch wide of the cup, and he threw up his arms in his most bombastic gesture all week.
Then, he missed a 6-footer for birdie.
When Bradley made his birdie try, Dufner was out of the lead for the first time all day.
Turns out, he was done. Dufner three-putted the 17th for a bogey, leaving him two shots behind. Not even a brilliant birdie at the brutal 18th hole was enough; Bradley barely cleared the water with his approach, two-putted for par and celebrated a one-stroke win.
Now, Dufner can take his place with all the guys who've endured heartbreak at the majors, from Scott Hoch to Jean Van de Velde.
"Maybe looking back in 10 or 15 years, I'll be disappointed if I never get another chance," Dufner said. "But I have a feeling I'll have more chances in a major to close one out."
The last four holes at Atlanta comprise one of the toughest finishing stretches in major championship history, but Dufner had breezed right through those the first three days — a cumulative 3 under, not one bogey on his card.
But Bradley knew the situation could change.
It sure did, in a hurry.
"Those last four holes are so tough," the winner said. "Someone could have a five-shot lead and it doesn't matter."
At the 15th, Dufner tried to get cute with a 5-wood and pushed his tee shot into the water. The crowd groaned, sensing a collapse, but he pulled himself together, took a drop, knocked it to 15 feet and made a bogey putt that felt like a birdie.
No problem. He was still in control.
But up ahead at 16, Bradley hit his best drive of the week to set up a birdie. Dufner, coming along in the final group, dumped his approach in a bunker — "the one I want back more than anything" — blasted out to 10 feet and missed the putt. Another bogey. Just like that, he was only two strokes ahead of Bradley.
Dufner stepped up to the 17th tee, looking down over the water at the picturesque, par-3 hole. He had the best — or maybe we should say the worst — view of all when Bradley rolled in a 35-foot birdie putt, raised his club with one hand, pumping his fist with the other and running around like this was his tournament now.
Dufner just stared straight ahead, his once commanding lead down to one measly shot. He cleared the pond off the tee, then made an ugly three-putt bogey, just as he would do in the playoff a short time later.
Both times, he ran his first putt well past the hole — 10 feet in regulation, 15 feet with the next one — and missed the return try.
"He had a tricky putt on 17," Bradley said, referring to the playoff attempt. "I feel for the guy, honestly. He played well enough to win."
Going to No. 18 for the second time, only this time trailing by two strokes, Dufner split the fairway with his driver, knocked his second shot over the water that collected so many balls during the week, and rolled in a 20-foot birdie putt.
It didn't matter.
From 18 feet, Bradley cozied his putt right next to the hole and tapped in for the victory.
The Wanamaker Trophy was his.
All Dufner got was heartache.
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