MEDINAH, Ill. – The kid from that golf powerhouse Vermont is all at once animated and antsy. He dances into and darts away from golf shots with what appears, at least to the untrained eye, a haphazard pre-shot routine that violates Sports Psychology 101.
In short, he makes coffee and, after a perfect day in this Chicagoland enclave, Europe’s best and brightest nervous.
But then Keegan Bradley has made a cottage industry out of defying convention, ascending to the game’s highest level following a humble start at St. John’s University. He won his first major – last year’s PGA Championship – in his first Grand Slam try; and on Friday rewrote another page of lore.
On a cool and raucous morning at Medinah he stepped to the first tee amid chants of “Major champion,” and laced a drive into the middle of the fairway that may still be rolling.
With his eyes ablaze he bolted down the fairway when playing partner Phil Mickelson draped a knowing arm over his shoulders. This, Lefty knew, was to be savored and he wanted to make sure his youthful thoroughbred didn’t miss a chill.
Bradley and Mickelson would win that match handily, 4 and 3, ending a perfect partnership for the Europeans and the Spaniard’s perfect Ryder Cup foursome record.
Mickelson has been here before. In 2008 he took Anthony Kim under his wing and they went 1-1-1. But this was different. This was surreal as the rookie answered every challenge with even more zeal.
The “rookie” made a 6-footer for par at the fourth for a half, a 7-footer for birdie at the 10th to keep the match all square and hit his approach at the 13th to 18 feet to give the U.S. tandem a 2-up lead.
Jim McLean, Bradley’s south Florida-based swing coach, knew the second-year Tour player had the DNA to play the Ryder Cup but to dominate an event that regularly reduces grown men to tears, well, that was something else altogether.
“There’s a difference between being fearful and being nervous,” McLean figured. “And he lives for these big moments.”
That Bradley would walk in the winner from 25 feet at the 15th hole, and give the U.S. side its first points, was apropos. That U.S. captain Davis Love III had no problem marching his high-energy tandem back out in fourball play was also no surprise. That Bradley and Mickelson would win their first three holes in the matinee against Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, considered Europe’s first-line pairing, was deafening.
Bradley fist-pumped and rolled in every putt that mattered, 30,000 fans shook leaves off trees and the Europeans heard it all.
All told, Bradley and Mickelson won seven consecutive holes, the last four in their morning match and the first three in the second half of the doubleheader.
There was a theory this week that, like things used to be with Tiger Woods, an American victory over world No. 1 McIlroy would feel like a two-point swing. As Bradley and Mickelson rolled to a 4-up advantage before the turn it felt much more than that.
The Europeans rallied, cutting the lead to two holes with four to play, and the Americans answered in the form of a 7-iron from Lefty at the 17th that never left the flag. The crowd and Bradley went nuts.
“Oh baby, I wish I could go 36 (holes) more,” Bradley gushed, adrenaline coursing through his 6-foot-3 frame, when asked how he felt after his side’s 2-and-1 takedown of the Northern Irishmen that helped stake the United States to a 5-3 Day 1 advantage.
Bradley’s play on a fall Friday was inspiring, but it was his unbridled energy that sent the Medinah masses and, more importantly, Mickelson into a frenzy.
At this year’s U.S. Open Mickelson talked about needing to find the motivation to bring out his best. At Pebble Beach in the spring a Sunday pairing with Woods was the tonic. At Medinah it was the “Energizer Bradley.”
“There's a really simple reason why Keegan is perfect for the Ryder Cup,” said Mickelson, who has a regular Wednesday game with Bradley on Tour.
“It's because the more pressure the situation, the better he plays; the better he sees the shot; the better he focuses; and the better the result, and there's no more pressure situation, no higher pressure situation than the Ryder Cup.”
At the 15th hole late Friday afternoon in fourball play Bradley did a pirouette when his eagle putt slipped by the hole, and he chest-bumped Mickelson so hard during the morning game, Love may have been momentarily concerned for his safety.
He rolled in putts, pounded his chest, shouted and inspired a 42-year-old to play like it matters. You don’t hand out MVP awards after the first period, but at this pace the Man of the Match is the baby-faced Bradley.
Before McLean left Chicago this week he left a note in Bradley’s locker that read, in part, “draw energy from the crowd and don’t rush.”
At this pace it seems the only concern Bradley should have is that he may miss something in the beautiful blur. A guy that never slows down should remember, performances like this should be savored.