God bless America, land of the free and home of a major champion – finally.
European domination and the longest major championship drought in the modern history of US golf, came to an end here on Sunday when Keegan Bradley walked away with the 2011 US PGA Championship trophy.
The 25-year-old PGA rookie from Woodstock, Vermont, beat his compatriot Jason Dufner after a play-off to become the first American to win one of the game's biggest events since Phil Mickelson added the 2010 Masters to his glittering collection of victories. By contrast Bradley's here was his second as a professional. He won the three-hole play-off by one shot but that tells only half the story.
Heading into the final four holes of regulation play, Dufner opened up a four-shot lead. But two dropped shots, and two birdies by Bradley, one of which came from a swinging 40-foot putt on the penultimate hole, restored parity after 72 holes, with both players finishing on 262, eight under par.
The younger man's revival was all the more admirable for coming after a triple bogey at the notorious par-three 15th, where he chipped into water from the greenside rough. Most assumed that was that, including the bookies who quickly installed him as a 270-1 no-hoper, but the young American had other ideas.
In the first flush of victory there is always the risk of getting carried away but Bradley really does look a cut above. The traditionalist will disapprove of his use of the long putter – he is first player to win a major using that controversial implement – but no one can argue about his guts and gambler's spirit. Like Mickelson, with whom he has struck up a friendship, he has eyes for only the flags – an inclination that served him well on the first play-off hole, the 16th, where he stuck his approach shot to four feet. He made birdie and never looked back.
For Dufner there was only the consolation of knowing he had performed better than most expected he would. He arrived at Atlanta Athletic Club on Sundayon Sunday morning as an 11-year PGA Tour veteran without a victory and left as such.
Anders Hansen, who finished third after a highly creditable final-round 66, and Robert Karlsson, who threatened for a stretch during the last round, reeling off a succession of birdies to come within a shot of the lead, were Europe's highest finishers.
The expectation at the start of the day was that such as Bradley, Dufner and Brendan Steele, who was tied for the lead overnight, would succumb under the unforgiving glare of a major championship Sunday. Steele did, dropping four shots over the front nine holes, but the other two proved surprisingly resilient. That the others did not was bad news for those in pursuit, such as Lee Westwood and Luke Donald. The two Englishman were six shots off the lead after three rounds.
Yet this golf course is a treacherous place, with more water hazards than Pirates of the Caribbean. A marginally poor shot can cost a significantly big penalty - as Donald found on Saturday night, when a ball in the drink on the 18th hole ultimately cost him two shots. His hope was to play well, and trust that others would come unstuck.
Donald, the world no1, to his credit, kept his side of the bargain, picking up three shots over the first 10 holes. Westwood, too, made progress, albeit at a slower pace. The world No2 struck the ball beautifully over the front nine but – stop me if you have heard this before – missed birdie putt after birdie putt. Eventually a couple dropped, on the 8th and 10th, and then he made a birdie at the par-five 12th. This was progress but it was matched by others.
In the end Donald and Westwood finished with matching rounds of 68, two under par, to sneak inside the top 10. This was a good week's work for the world No1 and No2 but at this stage of their respective careers they have no interest in the financial rewards that come with near misses. There is no room in the record books for top-10 finishes, as they well know; just as they also know that time is not in unlimited supply.
Donald is 33 years old and still in the prime of his golfing life. He has improved immeasurably as a player over the last 12 months and that will surely sustain him over the winter months as he waits for next year's Masters. But what of Westwood?
The world No2 is five years older than his compatriot and, if his public expressions are anything to go by, a whole lot more frustrated. "Maybe I could change my religion. I have tried everything else," he said on Saturday in reference to his putting, which once again failed him in a major championship.
He was only half joking but in his private moments Westwood must despair as he cannot quite win the major championship his talent deserves. It was one thing to have to watch as such talents as Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy win majors but, with relatively obscure Americans beating him to the punch, he must wonder if his day will ever come.
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