DUBLIN, Ohio – It was always there. The ultimate deadline, looming like the storm clouds that annually blanket Muirfield Village the last week of May.
On Jan. 1, 2016, Keegan Bradley will no longer be allowed to use the belly putter that had delivered so much. A PGA Championship in 2011, a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams, a World Golf Championship.
That Bradley had become the poster child during last year’s debate over a possible ban on anchoring didn’t make things any easier. For a blue-collar guy who more easily identifies himself with that gritty 2004 Boston Red Sox team than, say, a Kardashian, the attention was very much unwanted.
Bradley knew he’d have to ditch his anchored putter at some point, he just wasn’t looking forward to it.
“The negatives are just simple, mentally I’m aware that people are watching me,” Bradley said at Muirfield Village. “That’s the hardest part.”
On Thursday, however, Bradley decided enough was enough, ditching his trusty belly putter for a 41-inch version that was no longer anchored. He’d hoped to “fly under the radar” and just give it a test drive, but an opening 67, which left him one stroke off the early lead, and 28 putts ruined the best laid plans.
Since the U.S. Golf Association and Royal & Ancient brought their rulemaking crosshairs onto the anchoring issue, Bradley has been a central character.
He was, after all, the first player to win a major championship (2011 PGA) using an anchored putter. Nor did he attempt to avoid the fray last year when the debate reached a crescendo. He didn’t actively lobby against the ban on anchoring, like Adam Scott and Tim Clark, but he also didn’t shrink from the issue.
“I do want to do what I think's best for me and what's right,” he said last February after being heckled by fans for using the belly putter. “I take great offense to people calling me a cheater. I think that that's unbelievable to me.”
When the anchoring ban was announced a year ago last Wednesday, Bradley and his Tour frat brothers who anchor found themselves on the ultimate stopwatch. With change looming he could either do it on his own terms, or wait until he no longer had a choice.
“My original plan was to hopefully qualify for the Ryder Cup team and really start to think about switching after the Ryder Cup,” he said.
The timetable began to be adjusted two weeks ago at the Byron Nelson Championship when he needed 112 putts to cover 72 holes on his way to a tie for 29th place.
When he returned home to south Florida his mother provided the final nail in the anchoring coffin. “She said, ‘You’re not going to like this, but I think you should use the short putter,’” he recalled.
A day later he joined Michael Jordan on the first tee at The Bear’s Club with the 41-inch model and told his famous playing companion to “make me uncomfortable, which he’s good at.”
After multiple trips around the course he decided he was comfortable enough with the non-anchored version to put it in play on Tour, just not the scrutiny that it was sure to create.
On Wednesday after he used the short putter during the pro-am your scribe asked him if he was planning to use it on Thursday. “No, maybe, we’ll see,” was his response.
“I kind of felt bad when you asked me,” he smiled. “I was pretty sure at that point. I had come so close to going completely under the radar. But I was pretty confident (he’d use the non-anchored putter).”
Consider it the unintended consequences of the USGA and R&A’s sweeping decision, the baggage that comes with finding yourself on the wrong side of a historically polarizing debate.
So much so he went to great lengths this week to keep his change under the radar, using a longer, counter-balanced shaft and the same model of putter head (Odyssey Sabertooth) as before, but with his solid play on Day 1 also came the spotlight and scrutiny.
Even around his friends during casual rounds, Bradley said he would switch to the non-anchored version just to see if they would notice, always aware that the anchored end of his putter is unfortunately just as much a part of his legacy as that 2011 PGA.
But on Thursday self-consciousness gave way to competitive reality. He’s nearly two years removed from his last Tour victory (2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational) and his work with new swing coach Chuck Cook has produced solid early results. It was time to make a change.
It’s likely this is not the end of the story and Bradley stressed the fact that his decision to switch putters is very much a “trial period.” Nor was he putting too much stock in his opening-day effort at the Memorial, but after a year of waiting it was liberating to finally take the leap.
“It weights on your mind. You’ve got almost like a ticking clock in your head,” he said.
For the first time in over a year that clock doesn’t seem so intimidating.