Weird science


His rookie season on the PGA Tour has turned into a huge success, but with all the false-start predictions that young players will become great players, PGA Championship winner Keegan Bradley warrants further examination. Is he capable of superstardom – as so many have forecast for Rory McIlroy – or is he another Ben Curtis – the last guy to win a major in his first start?

There is no exact science when it comes to telling the fortunes of Tour pros – there really isn’t much science at all. Just educated guesswork and hunches, and from there, one can see how Bradley – who turned 25 in June – has what it takes to be one of the game’s top players. He might have gotten some help on his way to the trophy ceremony at Atlanta Athletic Club, but we’re also talking about a kid who triple bogeyed the 15th hole to trail by four with three to play, birdied the next two, then birdied the first playoff hole, which proved to be the difference.

On two laps around one of the toughest finishing stretches anywhere, Bradley went 3 under with the game on the line. Talent is one thing, but having the mental strength to excel under intense competitive duress is what defines greatness. His life changed forever last Sunday – more attention, much higher expectations in a world that is constantly in a rush to identify the latest greatest. Is he capable? Here’s the data. You be the judge.

THE RESULTS: Bradley needed just one year on the Nationwide Tour (2010) to make the big leagues after winning nine college tournaments at St. John’s. He didn¹t exactly set the Nationwide on fire, missing five consecutive cuts at one point in the spring. He didn’t notch his first top 10 until July, then missed three cuts in his next four starts. In mid-September, however, he began a stretch of four straight top-five finishes that would vault him to 14th on the final money list. None of them were victories, but Bradley had graduated with a Tour card.

Although a brief career in the minors hardly guarantees a guy stardom, most top-tier players get to the highest level sooner rather than later.

A tie for seventh at the Bob Hope (his second start) and T-15 at Pebble Beach sent Bradley off in the right direction this season. He struggled through the Florida Swing, then ended a two-month stretch of mediocre play with a T-9 at the Valero Texas Open. Five weeks later, Bradley beat Ryan Palmer in a playoff in Dallas, notable not only because it was his first career victory, but the lowest winning total in relation to par (3 under) at any tournament all year.

Both of the kid’s victories have come on very difficult courses. Generally speaking, young players tend to make hay on easier setups – places they can overpower without worrying about driving it in the rough. Bradley also performed well on always-tough Firestone before fading on Sunday, so if the trend continues, he should continue to do well at the majors. He may not be one of those guys who seems to contend every week, but at the big gatherings, he’ll bring his best game.

THE STATISTICS: Bradley’s greatest strength is a great strength to have.

He drives the ball exceptionally long, ranking 16th at 301.3 yards, and as big hitters go, he is very straight – 93rd on the Tour at just under 62 percent of his fairways hit. Making putts is nice, but the power/accuracy combination travels just about anywhere and gives Bradley a chance when his putter heats up.

The reason shorter hitters don’t win very often is pretty simple: every week, there are a half-dozen bombers making their 15-footers, which allows them to take advantage of their length. Bradley is definitely one of those guys, which isn’t to say he’s a slouch on the greens. He falls in the middle of the pack in every significant putting stat, which is very good for a first-year player, most of whom have never seen the venues they’re playing.

There are weaknesses. Bradley ranks 170th on the Tour in getting up and down from bunkers. He doesn’t hit nearly enough greens with short irons, which is a problem when you drive it 300-plus. His GIR numbers get better on longer approaches, but overall, he’ll find himself contending a lot more often when he starts sticking wedges inside 15 feet. Too many scoring chances are turning into blue-collar pars or worse.

THE LINEAGE: Keegan’s aunt, Pat Bradley, is a member of the LPGA Hall of Fame and six-time major champion who won 31 tournaments overall from 1976-91. Perhaps bloodlines don’t mean anything in pro golf, but if physical ability is genetic, why not mental toughness? The lanky kid from Vermont has already locked up Rookie of the Year honors – and finds himself a serious contender for Player of the Year. The sky’s the limit here, but then, haven’t we said that a hundred times before?