Bradley, Dufner again atop an Atlanta leaderboard

September 23, 2011 - 3:40 AM
Tour Championship Golf

Luke Donald of England, hits from the sand on the 15th hole during the first round of the Tour Championship golf tournament at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

ATLANTA (AP) — Just being back in Atlanta was enough for Keegan Bradley to get chills thinking about the biggest win of his career last month at the PGA Championship, whether he was walking through the airport or even seeing Interstate signs while driving to East Lake.

It got even better when he finished the first round of the Tour Championship.

Bradley saw his name atop the leaderboard — right in front of Jason Dufner, no less.

"It is very familiar in a really cool way," Bradley said Thursday after opening with a 6-under 64 for a two-shot lead over Dufner, Chez Reavie and Luke Donald, the No. 1 player in the world. "I'm sure this doesn't happen a lot where you get to come back a month later in the same city that you won a major. So it's really fun."

It was difficult to ignore, even for the other 28 players who still have a shot at the $10 million bonus in the FedEx Cup finale, or at least are trying to win the Tour Championship.

Luke Donald is among the top five players in the FedEx Cup who only have to win at East Lake to collect golf's richest prize, yet as he made his way through the back nine, he couldn't help but notice the first two names on the leaderboard.

It was only 39 days ago when Bradley, who was five shots behind with three holes remaining, went birdie-birdie-par at Atlanta Athletic Club to catch a fading Dufner, then beat him in a three-hole playoff to become the third player in 100 years to win a major in his first try.

A month later and 40 minutes away, there they were again.

Donald told his caddie, John McLaren, "A familiar leaderboard since the last one in Atlanta."

"Those guys play a lot on Bermuda grass and they're used to it," Donald said. "I don't think it's a coincidence by any means."

Bradley, who grew up in New England and now lives in South Florida, was quick to agree.

"Yeah, I don't think there's any big surprise," Bradley said. "He likes this grass, too. He likes these courses, and I hope I get to play with him tomorrow. I think that would be a lot of fun."

The Tour Championship is more about memories, however.

Along with this being the end of the FedEx Cup, there's another cup on Bradley's mind. He is not a lock to be a captain's pick for the Presidents Cup, despite having won twice this year, including a major. U.S. captain Fred Couples has said he would consider the Tour Championship as one last audition.

Bradley could not have asked for a better start.

He holed a bunker shot from across the green on his second hole to fire up the fans, most of whom now know his name. After a sloppy three-putt bogey on the eighth, he hammered a 3-wood from 281 yards that rolled past the hole at No. 9 and set up a two-putt birdie, then really put it together on the back nine. He had a pair of short birdie putts, along with a two-putt birdie on the 15th and was feeling the good vibes from a month ago.

He is a long shot to win the FedEx Cup — especially with Donald playing well — but the Presidents Cup is right in front of him, and Bradley feels it.

"The cliché is to say that I'm not thinking about it, but literally probably every third hole — or maybe even less — it pops into my mind," Bradley said. "I really want to be on the team, but I want to earn my way onto the team, just like I'm going to have to. If the captain and assistant captains think I've done enough to get on the team, they're going to pick me.

"And if they don't, that's totally fair, too."

Dufner was surprisingly crooked off the tee, although he managed it well for his 66. He failed to make a single bogey. And while Dufner was amused at the Friday pairing of him and Bradley — "Maybe some thoughts here or there will come back and forth" — he was more than ready to move on.

"I think both of us are more focused on what's going on in the future," Dufner said. 'He's got a chance to possibly play in the Presidents Cup. He's got a chance to obviously win this tournament. I'm kind of in the same boat, and I think both of us will be more focused on tomorrow's round than what happened a month ago."

The conditions at East Lake were relatively tame until the final hour, when sprinkles turned to rain and even halted play with the final two groups not finished. Donald returned to play the 18th in a driving rain, and did well to escape with par from the bunker on the par-3 closing hole.

Charles Howell III, who appearance at East Lake guarantees another trip back to Georgia in April for the Masters in his hometown, was at 67 along with Adam Scott, Hunter Mahan, Jason Day and Matt Kuchar.

The group at 68 included another batch of Presidents Cup hopefuls, from Aaron Baddeley on the International team to Bill Haas and Brandt Snedeker on the American side.

Phil Mickelson also shot a 68 and is on Bradley's side — not because he wants him as a captain's pick, but because they appear to share an affinity for golf in Georgia. Mickelson has won the Tour Championship twice at East Lake, along with three Masters and three regular PGA Tour stops in the Atlanta area.

Webb Simpson, No. 1 in the FedEx Cup, bogeyed the last hole for a 69. Of the top five players in the FedEx Cup — all of whom only need to win to collect the $10 million — Dustin Johnson (No. 2) was the only player not to break par. He shot 70.

Donald said he was thinking more about the silver FedEx Cup than the crystal Tour Championship trophy when he arrived at East Lake "because that's what everyone is talking about." He also got off to a good start, important to him because he opened with a 75 last week at Cog Hill and took himself out of the tournament. Donald still managed to finish fourth.

"I wanted to get off to a faster start, put myself in better position, and I'm glad I did that," Donald said.