As the shadows grow longer this evening over Atlanta Athletic Club, someone at the PGA Championship will step to the 15th tee with an advantage, and need simply to survive. It may be obscure third-round leaders Brendan Steele or Jason Dufner, or any of the 17 other players within six shots of the lead. The season's final major, to this point, has been difficult to define, because only true golf insiders know the characters in and around the lead. But it's hard to imagine the tournament won't ultimately be defined by a savage, four-hole finish.
First, those who will try to navigate it: Steele, a 28-year-old Californian, had never played a PGA Tour event before this season, and this is his very first major championship. He is ranked 121st in the world. He won the Texas Open earlier this year, a turn of events that, he said, "kind of blew my mind."
Dufner is a 34-year-old who walked onto the golf team at Auburn and has won nothing this side of the minor-league Nationwide Tour. He sits 80th in the world rankings, and has missed so many recent cuts that, before this week, he hadn't played a competitive round on the weekend since May. He could take his chubby face and waggling swing onto any municipal driving range anywhere in the country, whack a bucket of balls, and walk out unnoticed.
Both those men -- Steele behind his 66 Saturday, Dufner with a 68 -- are at 7 under par 203 through three rounds. The pack that trails is hardly star-studded. Keegan Bradley, a PGA Tour rookie who also won earlier in the season in Texas, trails by a shot after Saturday's 69.
Steve Stricker, as polite a person as anyone would ever want to meet, brings what amounts to star power, though its doubtful the majority of the people in the sweat-soaked galleries here could recall that he is the highest-ranked American in the world, at No. 5. He sits three behind.
"I think it just shows the depth and how good guys are these days," Steele said.
That may be true. But whoever steps to the 15th tee with the lead today -- be it Steele or Bradley in their first majors, Dufner in his 11th or Stricker in his 50th -- will have to deal with his own nerves and an unrelenting stretch of holes.
"You're really going to need to commit to the shots that you're hitting," Steele said. "Any sort of wishy-washy-type play there is not going to get it done."
Go to the scorecard. The 15th is a par 3 of -- and this is not a typo -- 260 yards. With a large bunker to the left. And another to the back right. And that's if you carry the water that guards all but the very left portion of the green. Earlier in the week, Mike Small, the only club pro to make the cut here, told Stricker, his old college teammate at Illinois, that the hole is a dogleg par 3.
"It's too long," Stricker said. "It doesn't need to be that long."
Then there is the finishing hole. On the scorecard, it lists at 507 yards -- and is a par 4. Expect it to play that length today. Saturday, it was a mere 484 yards, but still with the narrowest of landing areas.
Steele came to the 18th Saturday with a two-shot lead over Dufner and Bradley. Off the tee, he found the third bunker on the right. With 235 yards in, he resisted temptation and laid up. But he could not get up and down from 97 yards out, and his closing bogey brought him back closer to the pack.