How will they handle the pressure of the final round?
Can they safely navigate through the four-hole finish, considered among the most brutal of any course?
And who are these guys, anyway?
Rarely has a major championship contained so much inexperience at the top going into the final round. Steele is believed to be the first rookie since John Daly in the 1991 PGA to play in the final group of a major.
Steele, already a winner this year on the PGA Tour and No. 121 in the world, showed remarkable poise Saturday by overcoming a double bogey on the seventh hole. He ran off four birdies over his next seven holes, and not even a safe bogey on the 18th could take away from a 4-under 66 to give him a share of the lead.
He is tied with Jason Dufner, who, at 34, is still looking for his first PGA Tour win. Dufner, stoic as ever with a chunk of tobacco jutting out from his bottom lip, atoned for a pair of three-putt bogeys on the back nine with back-to-back birdies. He only missed one green in the third round and shot 68.
They were at 7-under 203, one shot clear of Keegan Bradley, a 25-year-old rookie who also won earlier this year. Bradley, playing in the final group, opened with a double bogey, which might have been expected given his inexperience. He also bounced back with remarkable resiliency, playing bogey-free on the back nine and rallying for a 69.
Now comes the hard part.
Never mind that only one of the top 10 players in the world is within four shots — Steve Stricker, who shot 69 and was three behind. Or that Tiger Woods, defending champion Martin Kaymer and British Open champion Darren Clarke all missed the cut. Or that U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy blew up in a round of 74 and was out of contention.
Atlanta Athletic Club is the kind of course that can take shots away without notice. Jim Furyk discovered that by putting three balls into the water on the last four holes for a pair of double bogeys.
“Wishy-washy play is not going to get it done,” Steele said.
Right behind them is plenty of experience.
Scott Verplank, who at 47 can become the second-oldest major champion, rattled in a 50-foot putt across the 17th green for a most unlikely birdie, then laid up on the par-4 18th and escaped with par by making an 18-foot putt for a 69. He was only two shots behind.
Stricker, at No. 5 the highest-ranked American in the world ranking, took only 10 putts on the front nine when his round could have gone south quickly. He steadied himself with a solid up-and-down for par on the final hole.
“Everybody is going to be dealing with their nerves and the pressure of trying to win,” Stricker said. “I think it’s who can keep it together the best and be patient and play some good golf.”
That might be to the newcomers’ advantage. Plus, the golf course is proving to be difficult enough to get their attention.
“It could be a good thing. Might maybe make me a little more relaxed knowing that everybody is kind of in the same boat struggling with those emotions and thoughts and the mentality of trying to win a major,” Dufner said. “I just feel like if you’re playing good, you should be confident. And obviously, I’ve been playing really well for these three rounds.”
Dufner is playing his best at the end. Through three rounds, he has played the last four holes in 3 under — with no bogeys. Compared with the field average, that’s the equivalent of picking up seven shots on the field.
Besides, there’s not much major championship experience behind them.
Only two players among the top 12 on the leaderboard have won majors — Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and David Toms, who won the PGA Championship on this course 10 years ago. They were at 2-under 208, five shots behind.
Also in that group was Adam Scott, coming off a win at Firestone last week. He struggled to a 70, but has not lost hope.
“You can make up six shots in the last four holes,” said Scott, who was six behind when he finished. “So yeah, I think you can make up six shots in the last round.”
The final round is so much up in the air that even Lee Westwood, desperate to finally add a major to an otherwise stellar career, remains in the mix despite one bad hole that spoiled his afternoon. A tee shot that just climbed into a bunker in the 14th fairway led to a three-putt double bogey on the 14th. He still managed a 70 and was six shots behind.
Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world who also is without a major, got to within one shot of the lead only to find the water on the 18th hole and close with a double bogey, leaving him seven shots behind.
“It does offer some birdie opportunities, and you can get it under par,” Donald said. “But there are some tough holes out there that you’ve got to weather, and the champion at the end of the week is probably going to have played those tough ones the best.”
The last player to win a major in his first try was Ben Curtis in the 2003 British Open at Royal St. George’s. The last American to make a major his first PGA Tour win was Shaun Micheel at the PGA Championship in 2003 at Oak Hill.
“It’s a great week for me just to be in the field,” said Steele, won the Texas Open a week after the Masters. “To have a chance to actually win in my first major is really something special.”
Bradley, the nephew of LPGA Tour great Pat Bradley, won the Byron Nelson Championship in May and contended last week in Firestone. When he started with a double bogey, he didn’t panic.
“It really did not faze me that much,” Bradley said. “My goal was to under-react to everything that happened out there (Saturday), good or bad. And you know, I took it pretty well. I knew that it was a very important time for me to stay calm and stay patient, or else it could have got away from me. And I did, which was good.”
Saturday was the kind of day when it could have gotten away from a lot of players. Despite more muggy temperatures, the rookies managed to keep their composure.
Anders Hansen of Denmark, who has never seriously contended in a major, also kept it together with a 70 and was at 3-under 207, along with Pebble Beach winner D.A. Points, who went nine holes without making a par but still shot 71.
The toughest part about today might be killing time until the late afternoon tee time. That shouldn’t be a problem for Steele, who spent the first three months getting the last tee time on tour because of his rookie status.
Then again, that was another reminder of how far he has come already.
Bradley thought back to the Nationwide Tour last year when he and Steele were in contention at a tournament in Chattanooga, Tenn.
“There was nobody around. We were just out there playing,” Bradley said. “If we would have said we’d be in a couple of the final groups (today) at the PGA, I think we both would have kind of laughed at each other.”