Native Vermonter Keegan Bradley (left) talks to Dustin Johnson on the sixth tee during a practice round for the PGA Championship on the Ocean Course of the Kiawah Island Golf Club in Kiawah Island, S.C. The tournament begins today.
It was late Sunday night when a trio of golf writers, having filed their stories of a drama-filled finale of the 2011 PGA Championship, trudged through the parking lot and stumbled upon, of all people, the tournament champion. There was Keegan Bradley, a rookie on the PGA Tour, tidying his rental car and attempting to process the day’s life-changing turn of events.
“This is crazy,” he said. “I have the PGA trophy sitting right over there. This isn’t supposed to happen, right?”
Indeed, it is not every day that a golfer wins a major title in his very first attempt. In fact, Bradley was just the third player to do so in nearly a century, dating from Francis Ouimet in 1913.
A year later, the 26-year-old nephew of the World Golf Hall of Famer Pat Bradley acknowledges that he still finds it hard to fathom.
“Sometimes I will be sitting around and I will realize that I won the PGA and start laughing, by myself, like I can’t believe it,” he said. “It seriously happens all the time. I keep the trophy on my mantle in front of my TV in my room, and I’ll just be watching TV and I’ll look over at it and start laughing, because it seems so bizarre: That’s the trophy, and it’s in my room!”
It’s a good thing the trophy serves as a constant reminder, because he refuses to watch the highlights of his playoff victory over his fellow American Jason Dufner.
“I literally have a borderline panic attack,” Bradley said.
Long forgotten by most is Bradley’s 3-over-par start on the first five holes before salvaging a 71 in the opening round at Atlanta Athletic Club. He shot 64 in the second round to share the 36-hole lead, and ended the third round one stroke behind Brendan Steele and Dufner.
The night before the final round, Bradley’s fellow tour pro Camilo Villegas texted him a note of encouragement. “There’s going to be a time in tomorrow’s round that’s going to challenge you, and it’s how you respond that will determine your success in the tournament,” Bradley recalled the message saying.
Bradley’s moment of truth arrived after he chipped his second shot from a tricky lie through the green and into the water fronting the par-3 15th hole. The resulting triple bogey dropped him five shots behind with three holes to play.
“I just kept telling myself, don’t let that hole define this whole tournament,” he recalled. “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.”
He bounced back with birdies on the next two holes, and when Dufner started a run of three straight bogeys by splashing his tee shot at 15, a three-hole aggregate-score playoff ensued. When it mattered most, Bradley played almost flawless golf to hoist one of golf’s most coveted trophies.
It was an improbable story — Bradley became the sixth son of a PGA pro to win the association’s title.
Growing up in Woodstock, Vermont, Bradley’s competitive fire was stoked on the slopes. He was an all-state ski racer, who entered his first race at age 6. Golf? It was his summertime passion once the snow melted. That is until at 14, when Bradley was competing in a slalom race and had an epiphany.
“I’ll never forget it,” he said. “It was raining, cold, sleeting, and I’m at the top of this mountain going, `’This is not as much fun as golf. I love golf so much more.’”
How much? Enough to live with his father in a trailer they called Tin Cup II at Crystal Springs Park in Bolton, Massachusetts, so that Bradley could compete on the same high school golf team as his best friend, John Curran.
In 2009, it was Curran who introduced Bradley to the golf instructor Jim McLean. Bradley had won nine college tournaments at St. John’s University, but was never a highly touted prospect. To succeed in the pro ranks, he sought help.
“He said, ‘Lay it on me, man. I need to make some changes,’” McLean remembered Bradley telling him when they first met. “You don’t really hear that too many times from a player. So I gave him three really big things to work on and thought it would take a long time.”
Not for Bradley. Three weeks later his game clicked and he won the Texas Honing Open on the Hooters Tour. First prize: $35,000.
“He thought he was rich,” McLean said.
Bradley earned status on the Nationwide Tour the following year and finished 14th on the 2010 money list to earn his tour credentials. He already had emerged as the tour’s leading Rookie-of-the-Year candidate after his playoff victory at the 2011 HP Byron Nelson Championship in May. But win a major so soon? Even Bradley said he did not include it among his goals for his rookie campaign.
There’s been no sophomore slump. Any misgivings that the long-driving Bradley might be a one-hit wonder vanished when he canned a 13-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole of the Northern Trust Open in Los Angeles to get into a playoff with Phil Mickelson and the eventual champion, Bill Haas.
There were other close calls too: Bradley surrendered a back-nine lead at the World Golf Championships Cadillac Championship in March and threatened to defend at the Byron Nelson Championship. On Sunday, he shot a bogey-free 6-under 64 in the last round to win the World Golf Championships Bridgestone Invitational.
“He’s a volcano waiting to erupt,” said Brandel Chamblee, an analyst for the Golf Channel.
As if further evidence were required, Bradley leads the tour in the all-around category, a compilation of eight major statistical categories, which suggests he has all the tools to follow in the footsteps of his famous Aunt Pat.
“My uncles and my dad used to have a bag tag saying `Pat’s brother’ and now they say `Keegan’s uncle.’ We are going to get one for Pat saying `Keegan’s aunt,”’ Bradley said.
Back when “Keegan’s aunt” ruled the LPGA Tour, Bradley’s grandmother would ring a cowbell from the front porch of the family home in Westford, Massachusetts, whenever she won a tournament. With the cowbell retired to the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Florida, Bradley’s mother has initiated a new victory celebration.
“She runs up and down the street like a crazy woman with wind chimes,” Bradley said.
Listen carefully and you just may hear the sound of victory in the air.MORE IN Sports Wire
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