5 Things: Welcome to contenders anonymous
Want to track your favorite player on Sunday? Here are the pairings and tee times.
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Five things you need to know from the third round of the PGA Championship:
1. Who are these guys? Brendan Steele is playing in his first major. Jason Dufner hasn’t won in 147 career starts. Neither player will spike TV ratings, certainly, but their stories are nonetheless compelling.
Steele, a rookie, won earlier this season in Texas and has been receiving avuncular advice from Phil Mickelson - tips, for instance, on how to prepare his body and mind for majors. So, in Atlanta, Steele played stress-free, nine-hole practice rounds on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and, for the first time at a tournament, didn’t feel worn out by the time he stepped to the first tee Thursday. “It’s been invaluable,” he said of Mickelson’s tutelage.
How will Steele fare in the crucible of Sunday at a major? Well, in the past year, he’s slept on the lead twice, once on the Nationwide Tour last October and again at the Texas Open in April. He won both events in down-to-the-wire fashion.
Now, in his rookie season on Tour, in his first career major, he has a share of the 54-hole lead?
“This is out of my wildest dreams,” Steele said.
As for Dufner, he had four top 10s earlier this season but none since May. In fact, he hasn’t even made a cut on Tour since the last week of May.
In the midst of a summer slump, he took three weeks off, vacationing with his fiancee, Amanda, at a Florida beach. His PGA preparations began in earnest last Friday alongside his coach, Chuck Cook.
“I feel like, confidence-wise, I’m really at a peak right now,” Dufner said.
Few have played the final four holes at Atlanta Athletic Club's Highlands Course as well as Dufner, who is 3 under during that stretch. He birdied Nos. 15 and 16 on Saturday to move into the final pairing with Steele. They sit at 7-under 203, one shot clear of Keegan Bradley.
“It might make me a little more relaxed, knowing that everybody is kind of in the same boat struggling with these emotions and thoughts and the mentality of trying to win a major,” Dufner said.
But that also gives hope to those chasing. After all, these are unproven winners experiencing foreign emotions.
“There are guys that can come from behind that have nothing to lose,” said Steve Stricker, in solo fifth, “and then there’s a lot of first-timers up at the top.”
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2. Minor-league connection: Last autumn, Steele and Bradley were toiling in obscurity on the Nationwide Tour, paired together in Chattanooga, Tenn., as each chased his dream to make it to the Big Show, the PGA Tour.
Sunday at Atlanta Athletic Club, one of the two might make it to the Really, Really Big Show - otherwise known as the Major Champions Club. Steele is tied for the lead at 7-under 203; Bradley, who joins Steele for practice rounds most weeks on Tour, is one shot back, and playing in the second-to-last group. Had Bradley made about a 10-footer on 18, he’d have been paired with Steele in the final group. That’s fine. “It’s probably a good thing we’ll be in separate groups,” Bradley said, grinning.
As for Chattanooga last fall? That’s where the two struck up a friendship that has blossomed nicely.
“We were both kind of near the lead (in Chattanooga), and there was nobody around,” Bradley said. “We were just out there playing. If we would have said we’d be in a couple of the final groups on Sunday at the PGA, I think we both would have kind of laughed at each other. It’s going to be really fun. I can’t wait to see him. I’m sure we’ll text each other.”
Bradley said there was a good chance he’d already have a text from his famous aunt, Pat Bradley, who is in the World Golf Hall of Fame. What will she tell him?
“Fairways and greens, all the cliches she’s said her whole career,” he said, smiling. “If anything, she’s overpositive.”
Steele and Bradley speak highly of each other’s games. “He’s an amazing player,” Steele said of his buddy. “He’s got a great game. If you went and watched him play, you would instantly think that he’s going to be a superstar. He hits it long, he hits it straight, he chips it and putts it really well.” As for Bradley, he refers to his friend as “Steeley” and said his play fits the moniker.
By the way, Steele and Bradley are hoping things turn out better Sunday at the PGA than they did in Chattanooga last October. Steele finished fourth, and Bradley tied for fifth.
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3. Cagey veteran: The sentimental favorite Sunday at Atlanta Athletic Club? No doubt it’s Scott Verplank, now 47, who has been hampered by diabetes, as well as shoulder and wrist injuries for years.
“It feels great,” said Verplank, two shots back at 5-under 205. “I don’t feel a day older than 100.”
Verplank made unlikely birdies on Nos. 16 and 17 - the latter by ramming home a 40-footer. More crucial, perhaps, was his par save on 18, after he chose to lay up and got up-and-down from 102 yards.
He also has good memories from the last significant Sunday at Atlanta Athletic Club.
In 2001, Verplank closed with a 67 to tie for seventh. Later that night, he was rewarded with a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“I hope to turn back the clock a bit,” he said. “Maybe that’ll happen overnight.”
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4. American resurgence: So much for all that talk about a lack of American talent. The top 5 players at the PGA are from the U.S. - they’re just not the ones you probably expected.
Steele, Dufner, Bradley, Verplank and Stricker, none of whom has won a major, will enter the final round of the PGA hoping to end the Americans’ winless drought that dates to the 2010 U.S. Open (six majors).
Anders Hansen (T-6), a three-time winner in Europe, reigning Masters champion Charl Schwartzel (T-8) and red-hot Aussie Adam Scott (T-8) represent the best chance for a player outside the U.S. to hoist the Wanamaker Trophy.
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5. Daunting finish: The 18th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club has victimized a few would-be contenders this week.
Add World No. 1 Luke Donald to the list.
Tournament officials moved up the tee on the 484-yard, par-4 finishing hole, but Donald, not the longest of hitters, still hit hybrid into the right fairway bunker. With his ball up against the front lip, Donald chopped out, then blocked his 150-yard third shot into the pond. He proceeded to get up-and-down for double bogey, but the finish left him at 1 under, six back of the leaders.
“The finish leaves a bitter taste in my mouth,” Donald said. “It’s a shame to waste it at the end like I did.”
Not that he was the only challenger to close with a thud.
Phil Mickelson dropped a shot on 18. So did Robert Karlsson. And Francesco Molinari. And Ryan Palmer.
So in the gloaming Sunday, the winner will be decided not by the player who birdies the last few holes but the one who makes the fewest mistakes.
“That’s the toughest four-hole stretch we play all year,” Stricker said.
- Jeff Babineau contributed