SHANGHAI – Keegan Bradley remembers how special it felt to be driving home from South Carolina at the end of the Nationwide Tour season, knowing that he had earned his way to the big leagues and curious where it might lead.
“I definitely didn’t have China on my schedule,” Bradley said.
Yet there he was in the Bund district of Shanghai, posing in the middle of a paper dragon during a promotion for the HSBC Champions. Later that night, he was at dinner with former – and fellow – PGA champions David Toms and Martin Kaymer, all of them swapping stories about what they did with the Wanamaker Trophy.
Bradley’s photo covers one of the elevator doors at Le Meridien, the host hotel at the final World Golf Championship of the year. In conversations about the PGA Tour Player of the Year, his name still gets mentioned.
And to think that drive home from South Carolina was a year ago this week.
“It’s kind of surreal to be here,” Bradley said.
Bradley is putting the final touches on an amazing rookie season in which he won the Byron Nelson Championship in a playoff, then rallied from a five-shot deficit with three holes to play to win the PGA Championship in a playoff at Atlanta Athletic Club.
Since then, he has traveled to Bermuda for the PGA Grand Slam of Golf, which he won. He was invited to the lucrative Shanghai Masters last week at Lake Maleren. And he is featured at Sheshan International, site of the HSBC Champions that starts Thursday.
It’s a tournament he wants to win because so many of the best players in golf are here – the four major champions, former world No. 1 Lee Westwood, defending champion Francesco Molinari and FedEx Cup champion Bill Haas, the American who kept Bradley from a spot on the Presidents Cup team.
That would be the one negative to his rookie season, and it’s not enough to spoil anything.
“It’s been a great season,” he said. “And to think that a year ago, I was just graduating from the Nationwide Tour. It’s pretty special.”
Perhaps there is more to come.
Bradley didn’t realize the HSBC Champions would count as official if a PGA Tour member were to win it. Neither did the PGA Tour, which is why it delayed sending out its postseason award ballots until after this week.
Luke Donald, who withdrew because his wife is expecting their second child, is viewed as the big favorite, even by Bradley. It is difficult to top the fact that Donald, the No. 1 player in the world, won two tournaments, won the money title and the Vardon Trophy and had 74 percent of his finishes in the top 10.
Bradley has two wins, including a major, although he also missed 10 cuts and had only two other finishes in the top 10. Even so, to have a Tour-leading three wins – one of those a major, the other a World Golf Championship – at least keeps him in the picture.
“It wouldn’t hurt, I’ll put it that way,” Bradley said. “I think that Luke Donald and Webb Simpson … have had unbelievable years. I’d love to win Player of the Year, but most of all I’d love to win this tournament. I think Luke Donald and Webb Simpson have done a lot to prove themselves to be the winner of that award.”
Bradley is quite content having the largest of the major championship trophies – so large that he developed blisters from holding it – on a table at home in Florida.
“It’s right on my table where I keep my TV, so when I’m in bed or I wake up, it’s the first thing I see every day,” Bradley said. “It’s kind of weird to have a trophy like that in there. I’ve had other PGA Tour pros who live in the area walk in, and it reminds me of the way that they look at it how special it is to win the tournament.
“It’s weird to see it in there,” he said. “But it’s where I want it to be where I can see it every day.”
Before long, Bradley ducked outside into the rain at Sheshan International for his pro-am round, before facing four more days until the official end of his season. He still has the Shark Shootout and Chevron World Challenge in December, two more places he never imagined being at the start of the year.
One place he won’t be is Australia for the Presidents Cup unless Steve Stricker decides he’s not fit to play. U.S. captain Fred Couples chose Haas over Bradley, though he has said Bradley would be his first choice as a replacement.
It was disappointing, to be sure, though it’s hard for Bradley to be too upset.
He still has that Wanamaker Trophy in his bedroom next to the television. He was featured in the HSBC promotion with the paper dragon. And there was that moment with Toms and Kaymer, a simple dinner conversation that made him realize the company he could keep.
“We were talking about how big the case is for the trophy, and how traveling around with it is so difficult,” Bradley said. “As they were talking, I was thinking to myself, ‘This is one of the coolest moments of my career.’
“It was another moment on the PGA Tour that you can’t believe you’re part of it.”