Stress test


ATLANTA – Keegan Bradley – you know the guy, the belly-putter-wielding assassin with ice pumping through his New England veins who won the season’s final major the old-fashioned way with moxie and machine precision – knows a thing or two about pressure.

Sure, that OT walk-off a few weeks back on another Atlanta-area golf course was worth the price of admission, but we’re talking about real, oxygen-sucking pressure. The kind of stuff you feel in the soles of your feet when you tee off and your eyelids when you’re trying to line up a 5-footer.

Those extra frames at Atlanta Athletic Club may have been touch and go, but when pressed to rank the psi at the PGA compared to, say, Q-School, this was a non-starter for Bradley.

“There’s nothing more pressure-packed than Q-School,” Bradley said Thursday after his round-of-the-day 64 at the Tour Championship. To everyone’s surprise, including his caddie’s, Bradley continued. “But making the Presidents Cup team . . . every third hole it pops into my mind.”

At East Lake everybody is playing for something, and demons come in all shapes and sizes. For Bradley, it’s the thought of marching onto the first tee at Royal Melbourne in November with a teammate by his side and an entire nation standing behind him.

“I say it every time, I really want to be on the team,” Bradley said of U.S. captain Fred Couples’ final pick, which will come on Tuesday.

Brendan Steele figured on the eve of the final round of this year’s PGA, “You can only want something so much.” Bradley & Co. are putting that axiom to the test.

At 20th on the points list when automatic qualifying closed last Sunday, Bradley is hardly a lock for this year’s team, although most armchair pundits consider him the leader in the clubhouse by way of his major high card.

But that speculation ignores Nos. 11 and 12, respectively, Brandt Snedeker (68) and Bill Haas, who also posted a decent round (68) Thursday at East Lake. Haas’ father, Jay, is one of Couples’ assistants and young Bill is a member of the Billy Harmon staple, which would also help him in Captain America’s eyes.

Although Tuesday’s pick is out of Haas’ control, nobody wants to back into a selection. “I want to get picked for this tournament here, not because I had a solid two years,” Haas said. “A week like this you can really earn your pick.”

Enter the pressure.

It’s an equal-opportunity affliction that has no interest in international boundaries. Aaron Baddeley can attest to that truth. On Monday the Australian received a call from International captain Greg Norman. The message was simply suffocating – I’m watching.

Adding to that headlock is Baddeley’s Presidents Cup history. He was 12 years old the last time the matches were played at Royal Melbourne and attended every day except one. “It was too hot,” he said with a smile. He remembers watching Phil Mickelson hit bunker shots, David Duval practice his putting and, most of all, the International side score its only victory in the matches.

“This is an important week,” Baddeley said simply. He didn’t have to add the particulars of Norman’s decision. No need.

The International captain must decide among Baddeley and Robert Allenby, both Australians with plenty of history at Royal Melbourne, resurgent veteran Vijay Singh and last year’s Open champion, Louis Oosthuizen.

Baddeley has probably shot better 68s than the one he did Thursday, but not many with as much on the line.

The assortment of Presidents Cup hopefuls don’t have the market cornered on pressure at the Tour Championship. When Webb Simpson missed a 5-footer for par at East Lake’s fourth hole many in the gallery did a double-take. It was the kind of putt he hasn’t missed since July, or so it seems.

Following Simpson’s first Tour victory at the Wyndham Championship he and his wife celebrated with dinner at a fast-food joint, and earlier this week he figured he would buy some extra diapers if he were lucky enough to cash the Tour’s $10 million FedEx Cup lottery ticket.

There is a limit to how far frugal can take you, however, and, to be fair, $10 million will make you do crazy things. Nor is there any boundary to pressure, be it for a once-in-a-lifetime payday or a deep patriotic pining.

In sports, scores can give closure, but not always context. Bradley’s 64, Haas’ 68, even Simpson’s 1-under-par 69 stop well short of telling the true story.

For Bradley, the Tour Championship is nothing short of a Presidents Cup qualifier. His resume to date, however impressive, will mean little when Couples starts making tough choices late Sunday. It’s a truth that makes Thursday’s 64 better than the sum of its parts.

“I know he deals with adversity very well,” said Bradley’s caddie, Steven Hale. “He has another notch he can go to when he has to.”

Tour tee sheets are filled with very good players, but events such as the Tour Championship are what thins the heard. At the vast majority of Tour events success is based on victory. But this week is different. For many at the Tour Championship it’s less about pass/fail than it is dealing with pressure in whatever form that may take.