Bradley makes a name for himself

The year’s final major might have been short on star power but it didn’t lack for drama.

With Tiger Woods on sabbatical, Rory McIlroy battling an injured wrist, Phil Mickelson wilting in the heat and Luke Donald and Lee Westwood too far back, the understudies shone on the most exacting of stages on Sunday, the diabolical closing stretch at Atlanta Athletic Club.

And in the process of a nail-biting afternoon that culminated in a playoff, it may be that a new star was born.

A beaming, wide-eyed kid from Vermont ended the record streak of six straight majors without an American winner by hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy.

It wasn’t just that Keegan Bradley, a 25-year-old PGA Tour rookie playing in his first major, won.

It was how he won.

With moxie.

Seven days before, Bradley had sniffed the lead on the back nine at the Bridgestone Invitational. And then he fell apart.

“I had a kind of horrifying back side,” he said, “It was scary. I completely lost it.”

A week later, it looked like a fellow New Englander, Stephen King, was again writing his script. Bradley made a triple bogey on the brutal 259-yard par-3 15th hole and his tilt looked dead.

“It definitely crossed my mind – ‘Here we go again,’” he said.

“But I just kept telling myself, ‘Don’t let that hole define this whole tournament.’ 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 (lose).”

And so he raised himself from the canvas and fought, making birdie at the tough 16th, then draining a long birdie putt — one no one had made all day — on the 17th before taking par on the last to finish at 8 under par.

Eight under par should’ve been good for second.

But Jason Dufner, a 34-year-old journeyman from Auburn, Ala., was living his own Stephen King nightmare.

In the space of 45 minutes, Dufner coughed up a five-shot lead with three holes to play to allow Bradley into a playoff.

Bradley birdied the first hole of the three-hole shootout — after Dufner stuffed an iron in close, only to miss the putt — and was gifted the championship when Dufner three-putted the 17th, as he had in regulation.

While obviously disappointed with his capitulation, Dufner paid tribute to the way Bradley seized the moment and predicted big things for him.

“He definitely has the power,” he said. “He hits it pretty straight for how far he hits it (and) he putts good with the belly putter. He’s got a lot of good things going for him and I think he’s going to have a strong future in this game.”

For reasons not obvious, Bradley, who already has won once in his rookie year — at the Byron Nelson in Dallas — hasn’t featured in any of the PGA Tour’s marketing campaigns promoting the game’s young stars.

“Ever since I was 10 years old, I’ve kind of flown under the radar,” he said.

“I never really got noticed.

“That’s the way it happens with me, which is fine.”

He wrote his own ad on Sunday.

I asked Bradley — whose aunt, and boyhood idol, is six-time women’s major champion Pat Bradley — where he goes from here.

Could he avoid the fate of so many champions who experience a majors hangover from which they never recover?

“I don’t want to be one of the guys that kind of disappears,” he said.

“I would love to be up in a category with the best players and be mentioned with Phil Mickelson, one of my idols.

“I hope I don’t disappear. I don’t plan to.”

But even if Keegan Bradley doesn’t become a star, Sunday at Atlanta Athletic Club offered a reminder of another truth.

As much as it’s the sport’s big personalities that draw us, it’s ultimately the golf that satisfies.

And in that sense, the four majors this year — Charl Schwartzel’s birdie barrage to win the Masters, McIlroy’s triumph at the US Open, Darren Clarke’s popular victory at Royal St George’s and the thrilling finish to the PGA — have shown that golf is as strong as ever.