Pretenders to the throne

When Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner trudged to the first play-off tee at the US PGA Championship, fans likely wondered: can one of these no-names become the next Tiger Woods?
Keegan Bradley, left, and Jason Dufner took part in an all-American play-off at the US PGA Championship on Sunday.
Keegan Bradley, left, and Jason Dufner took part in an all-American play-off at the US PGA Championship on Sunday.

There was no widespread waving of Old Glory. No faces painted red, white and blue. No chants of "U-S-A, U-S-A."

When Keegan Bradley, whose roots trace to Vermont and Massachusetts, and Jason Dufner, a Ohioan by birth who gravitated to Florida and Alabama, trudged to the first play-off tee on Sunday at the US PGA Championship just north of Atlanta, Georgia, not many people in the gallery thought, "One of our boys is going to win a major. About time."

More likely, they were wondering: can one of these no-names become the next Tiger Woods?

A painful truth had announced itself two days earlier. The next Tiger Woods will not be ... Tiger Woods. At least not in the immediate future.

Woods was long gone by the weekend, having missed the cut by six strokes at 10-over par. He will disappear from view until next year, seeking some restorative powers for his crumbling game.

"I think I was in nearly, what, 20 bunkers in two days?" he said. "And had four or five water balls."

Could you ever imagine hearing those words from Woods?

After round one, he was asked to identify needed improvements to his game.

"It's going to be a lot. It's a laundry list," he said.

Tiger said that? The guy whose fix-it list is supposed to easily fit into the tiny coin pocket of his jeans?

The old Woods might thrill again. But we must brace for the scenario of an old Woods, limping along literally and metaphorically, shots being gobbled up by the rough and sand and lakes.

Think of how schoolchildren queue up in the cafeteria. That depicts how the line of potential successors to Woods is forming.

Some butt in, some fall out until the lunch monitor guides then back, others stand in the row unwillingly, wishing they could be somewhere else.

OK, there is Rory McIlroy perched quietly at the head of the line. Surely there must be some Americans. Right?

Let us consider Bradley and Dufner, who went one-on-one on Sunday while the internationals bit their lower lips, a run of six successive major championships being won by non-Americans is over.

Bradley was refreshing. Being in with a chance of winning your first major and your knees are supposed to buckle. Your throat is supposed to become parched. This guy was having a blast.

"As soon as I realised I was in the play-off, I completely calmed down," he said.

Bloodlines might have helped. Keegan's aunt, Pat Bradley, once lorded over the LPGA Tour. His father, a club professional, contributed to the gene pool.

Bradley's belated immersion in the sport suggests he is in the early stages of his learning curve. Vermont, blanketed by snow for much of the calendar, churns out more skiers than golfers. Keegan was typical, devoting his childhood to the slalom, before choosing the greens.

Thirteen years later, Bradley, 25, is the golfer for the moment.

It could have been Dufner. Buoyed by chants not of "U-S-A" but "War Eagle", the battle cry of Auburn University in Alabama, his nearby alma mater, Dufner forged a late five-stroke lead that might have seemed golden.

But on this gorgeous course with enough hazards to make it a nuclear waste disposal area for golfers, no lead can be hermetically sealed. Dufner dropped shots down the stretch. Yet, he did not leave the grounds wearing the dreaded label of choker.

In fact, he maintained his cool, no easy feat for a winless PGA Tour-ist.

"I didn't feel like I was nervous," he said. "It was very confident with my game. I just didn't execute my shots coming in."

As deftly as they played, there was no Tiger in this twosome. Bradley is a cub. Besides, he uses a belly putter. Heresy.

Dufner likely lacks the hunger to achieve greatness. He admits to a disinterest in golf lore and sounds lacking in ambition. "I just play golf," he said.

When Dufner's coach once asked him to specify goals, you would expect a response touching on major wins and the earnings list. Aiming low, Dufner declared he wanted to accumulate enough pay cheques until autumn so he could skip tournaments for the rest of the season to follow his beloved Auburn football team.

Hip, hip, hooray to Bradley and Dufner for busting up the cartel from Europe and Africa, champions of the previous half-dozen majors.

But as golf becomes globalised, American followers only see it as an us-versus-them at the Ryder Cup.

Still, they do want to see a fellow citizen raising his putter triumphantly at the 18th on a Sunday, receiving a winner's cheque and warm applause.

That used to be Woods. That used to be awesome.

Published: August 17, 2011 04:00 AM


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