With hometown and Ryder pressure, Bradley flourishes


NORTON, Mass. – That sound Tom Watson heard on Friday while he was smoothing 1-irons - or whatever icons do with their free time - was Keegan Bradley kicking down the door to the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s locker room.

Although Bradley had been among the consensus favorites to land one of Captain Tom’s picks on Tuesday evening, the twitchy and tenacious American put a bow on his chances on Day 1 at the Deutsche Bank Championship with a flawless 65.  Impressive, considering the degree of difficultly - the field average hovered closer to par than normal thanks unseasonably hard and fast conditions.

For Bradley, his 6-under card came despite the weight of his competitive world perched squarely on his narrow shoulders. Or maybe it was as a result of all that PSI.

“This probably has more pressure then ever,” said Bradley’s caddie, Steve “Pepsi” Hale. “Between being a home game and the Ryder Cup thing I don’t know that there’s ever been more pressure on him.”

Bradley is a New Englander to his core. A card-carrying member of Red Sox nation. The second playoff stop has always come with a healthy amount of expectation to impress the home crowd.

And, of course, there is that Ryder Cup thing.

The 28-year-old has played for the United States just twice, at the 2013 Presidents Cup and 2012 Ryder Cup, but has proven himself uniquely suited for all the intensity the international matches produce.

Two years ago at the Ryder Cup he went undefeated in team play paired with Phil Mickelson, and he was 2-2-1 at last year’s Presidents Cup. As heartbreaking as the loss was in 2012 at Medinah, the thought of not playing this year’s matches in Scotland is unthinkable, which is why the three-time PGA Tour winner set out this week with a singular purpose.

There has been no sugarcoating it. No sports psychology tricks. No clichés.

“I’m not going to sit up here and say any clichés that I'm not thinking about the Ryder Cup or any of that,” Bradley said following his round at TPC Boston. “I am very aware every second of the day that I'm being watched by the captain. I'm just trying to embrace that and be aware of it and enjoy it, if I can.”

Unapologetically confident, Bradley has told anyone who will listen what it means to him to wear the red, white and blue in September, including Watson.

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Bradley was the only player to take Watson up on his offer to visit Gleneagles, the site of this year’s matches, prior to the Open Championship and the two last spoke during a lunch at the PGA Championship.

Much like Bradley, Watson has not been ambiguous when it comes to his potential picks. “He hasn’t said anything to me about what I need to do, but I know what I have to do is play well,” Bradley said.

In practical terms on Friday, “playing well” added up to hitting 13 of 14 fairways, 13 of 18 greens in regulation and needing just 25 putts, his lowest putting total since Round 1 at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

It’s been the putter, be it his signature belly version or the standard-length model he experimented with at the Memorial, which has been the issue in 2014. He ranks 53rd on Tour in strokes gained-putting, his highest ranking in three years, and it is the primary reason he is two years removed from his last Tour victory.

This week, however, Bradley decided it was time to try something else.

“He’s made it a little less of a mental grind when it comes to putts this week,” Hale said.

As a result of his new laissez-faire approach Bradley rolled in birdie putts of 20 (No. 1), 9 (No. 3), 11 (No. 6), 15 (No. 17) and 10 (No. 18) feet on a perfect day. To put that in context, he ranks 72nd and 53rd on putts from 10 to 15 feet and 15 to 20 feet, respectively, this season.

In fact, the closest he came to making a bogey on Day 1 at TPC Boston was when his group was put on the clock for being out of position on the 13th hole, but compared to the sum total of all the pressure Bradley is dealing with this week, an official with an itchy finger on his stopwatch is hardly a reason to worry.

For Bradley, he’s been in this position before.

Back in 2011, U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples selected Bill Haas over Bradley, who had won that season’s PGA Championship and had the unabashed support of Phil Mickelson.

Losing - like the U.S. Ryder Cup team did in 2012 - Bradley can live with, given enough time and the solace that he held nothing back. But watching the matches from his couch in south Florida is unacceptable.

“When I’m sleeping, I’m dreaming about it. When I wake up, I’m thinking about it. When I’m on the course, I’m thinking about it,” he said.