JOHNS CREEK -- Keegan Bradley’s chance appeared to pass as the sun started to set in the Atlanta suburbs Sunday evening.
In his very first major championship appearance, Bradley’s triple-bogey on the 15th hole at Atlanta Athletic Club helped hand tournament leader Jason Dufner a five-shot lead with four holes to play.
Bradley told himself that anything could happen in the hectic closing holes at the Highlands Course.
The former all-state skier from Vermont was right.
During the next two hours, an uneventful tournament came to life and the most captivating golf tournament since April’s Masters unfolded.
Bradley re-energized the tournament with a pair of birdies in his final three holes to resuscitate his hopes and finish at 8 under, while Dufner bogeyed three straight holes before steadying himself with a par on the final hole and equaling Bradley’s 72-hole score.
Bradley went on to birdie the first of three playoff holes and finished the aggregate playoff one shot ahead of Dufner to win the PGA Championship.
“It seems like a dream, and I’m afraid I’m going to wake up here in the next five minutes, and it’s not going to be real,” Bradley said.
The 25-year-old became the first player ever to win a major championship the year after graduating from the Nationwide Tour. Bradley already won earlier this year at the HP Byron Nelson Championship and should be in the mix with Masters winner Charl Schwartzel for Rookie of the Year honors on tour. Bradley also moves in contention for a spot on the United States’ Presidents Cup team.
Bradley used the momentum from his two late birdies in regulation on the first playoff hole. After Dufner nearly holed his approach, Bradley stuck his second shot at No. 16 to 4 feet. Bradley calmly made his birdie putt, while Dufner missed his from 6 feet.
Dufner made a bogey on No. 17 to give Bradley a two-shot lead heading to No. 18.
Bradley watched as Dufner made a birdie on the final hole, but the former St. John’s standout needed just a two-putt from 18 feet with his long putter. His red-collared shirt untucked in the front of his pants, Bradley made the 2-foot par putt for the win.
“It was pretty remarkable the way I played,” Bradley said. “It’s the best golf I’ve ever played, and man, it was so exciting.”
Bradley made an improbable 35-foot birdie the on 17th hole in regulation to follow a short birdie on No. 16 that elevated him back into the mix.
“It will be a putt that I’ll never forget the rest of my life,” Bradley said of the birdie on No. 17.
The birdie-birdie run pushed him to 8 under, but at the time he still trailed by two shots.
“The course is so tough that no lead is safe,” Bradley said.
Dufner, meanwhile, started the closing gauntlet at 11 under. He hit his tee shot on the long par-3 15th hole into the water and went on to card his first bogey on the final four holes of the week. He played the stretch at 3 under through three rounds.
The 34-year-old former Auburn walk-on followed with bogeys on Nos. 16 and 17 -- he found a bunker on No. 16 and couldn’t get up-and-down and three-putted on No. 17 -- and fell into a tie with Bradley with one hole to play. His birdie putts on No. 17 in both regulation and the playoff raced well past the hole and resulted in three-putt bogeys.
“They are tough holes,” Dufner said. “Everybody has struggled on them. Unfortunately, I had the lead, and I struggled on them.”
Neither Bradley, Dufner nor many of the contenders avoided damage on Atlanta Athletic Club’s brutal four closing holes. Only three of the top 25 on the leaderboard escaped those four holes bogey-free, and only Kevin Na left that stretch under par.
Robert Karlsson played the final four holes at 3 over after he got within a shot of the lead. Scott Verplank, who finished tied with Karlsson and David Toms for fourth, had a double-bogey on No. 17.
The top six played the final four holes 9 over.
When asked about the difficulty of the final four holes, Toms responded, “As tough as you want.”
Dufner built a lead on the front nine with birdies on Nos. 6 and 8. Up by a shot over Bradley at the time, Dufner made a long birdie putt on No. 12 and followed with another birdie on the 13th hole to get to 11 under. He led Bradley by two shots following the second birdie.
Bradley’s triple-bogey pushed him back to 6 under and into a tie for second with Karlsson.
“I just kept telling myself, ‘Don’t let that hole define this whole tournament,’ ” Bradley said. “I had played so well, and I gutted out rounds, and I just didn’t want to be remembered as the guy who tripled that hole and went on to bogey or something.”
Bradley, a nephew of former LPGA star Pat Bradley, also snapped an American slump in major championships. Foreign players had won six straight majors -- the longest American drought ever -- since Phil Mickelson won the 2010 Masters.