There was a surreal moment accompanying Keegan Bradley’s victory at the BMW Championship on Sept. 10 when he didn’t know what to think. That moment occurred when Bradley looked at his cell phone and noticed that U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk sent him a text.
For a split second Bradley thought, “Is he?” As in, “Is he going to pick me for the team?”
It wasn’t long before Bradley came back to reality. His win over new world-No. 1 Justin Rose and a leaderboard stocked with world-class talent was a statement, but it was a little late to punch a last-minute ticket to Paris.
“I didn’t think he needed to call me to tell me I wasn’t a pick,” Bradley said from his phone last week in Jupiter, Fla. “It never seriously crossed my mind.”
But it was a nice gesture, because all along Bradley felt like Tony Finau deserved it more. Just the fact he was in the conversation in the 11th hour meant a lot to him. So did the captain reaching out before publicly announcing Finau as his last pick.
The conversation might have been different had Bradley not shot 78 playing in the final group on Sunday at the Northern Trust, just two weeks earlier.
“That one hurt because I thought that was the day that I was going to announce myself as being back in the golf world,” he said. “Not only did I not do that, but it was kind of embarrassing, to be honest. I think that day I was trying to be someone else. I wasn’t trying to be me. I kind of came to that epiphany this past week. I was trying to be this player that was perfect, and that day I was not me. It’s hard for me to really describe. This past week [at the BMW] I was myself. I wasn’t trying to be perfect. That was the difference.”
Bradley’s work in 2018 looks better now than it did then, with a win in a FedExCup playoff event, a second-place finish in the CIMB Classic and three more top-10s that included a T-7 at The Players and a solo fourth at the RBC Canadian Open that sported rounds of 63 and 64. But throughout the year, his play never warranted an invite to any of the team meetings or dinners, and that hurt. “That was a bummer,” admitted Bradley, who competed in two Ryder Cups (2012 and 2014) as Phil Mickelson’s partner.
The consolation was that Bradley’s victory moved him from 52nd to sixth in the FedExCup points standings, putting him in position to win the $10 million bonus this week in Atlanta. That took some of the sting off not making the Ryder Cup team and gave promise, at age 32, to the years ahead.
The decline in Bradley’s young career started with an exchange of high-profile swing coaches starting 2013, when he left Jim McLean for Chuck Cook and went back to McLean before settling on Darren May, an English teaching pro at The Bear's Club.
“We worked hard on making him accept the fact that he needs to be somewhat of an average putter, because his ball-striking and driving stats are so good,” May explained. “They’re all shooting scores in different ways.”
Ranked second in strokes gained: approach and sixth in strokes gained: tee-to-green, Bradley ultimately fed off the success his close friend Webb Simpson achieved in 2018, when he overcame the anchor ban with a win at The Players and a spot on Furyk’s team.
“Our career arc has been the same,” Bradley said, referring to Simpson. “Watching what he did really changed my mentality.”
The final piece of Bradley’s resurrection were the words of encouragement passed along by Michael Jordan through a relationship cultivated at The Bear's Club. Not long after he signed for the 78 at Ridgewood, Bradley started reading MJ's inspirational words on his phone. His basic message: Take from the experience and build on it.
“I can’t say enough nice things about MJ,” Bradley said. “It’s so cool to have him as a friend. Every time something happens, he shocks me with how amazing a guy he is. He texted me the whole time ... even after what I went through in New Jersey. It means so much. I grew up idolizing this guy. To have him sending me texts after I shot 78, and say such positive things, it truly helped me. It made me say, 'OK, you have to look at the positives.’ What he said really resonated with me. It really helped me on Monday [at Aronimink].”
The most-asked question Bradley faced after winning the BMW was to identify the low point in his seven-year Tour career. It was 2016 season, when he didn’t advance past the first round of the playoffs, fell out of the top-100 in the world, and ranked 183rd in strokes gained: putting. Said Bradley, “I wasn’t quite aware of how off I was.”
Two seasons later, his strokes-gained numbers were fractionally worse. The pattern was for Bradley to bring a different putter to almost every tournament. After a missed cut on the Riviera greens at this year’s Genesis Open, Keegan told his father, “If I can’t putt better, I can’t compete.”
What made this bearable for Bradley was having wife Jillian and newborn son Logan traveling with him throughout the season. Lifting 10-month-old Logan above his head at the trophy ceremony was an Instagram moment for the Bradleys, because they had been through this forever. When I caught up with Bradley two days later, he had just put Logan down for a nap.
“I just love having Jill and Logan out at tournaments,” Bradley said. “I didn’t know how that was going to be. It’s such a different thing. Now, I hate it when they’re not out there.”
The turnaround started one week after the Honda Classic in early March, after Bradley and his team exhausted all his short-putter options. With May pushing him, Keegan committed to the arm-lock technique popularized by Matt Kuchar. Some low rounds started popping up, including a 62 the day before his dreaded 78 at Ridgewood. But two weeks later, the arm-lock produced Keegan’s fourth career victory and first since the 2012 WGC Bridgestone Invitational. For the week, Bradley gained picked up seven shots on the field with his putting. While he won’t be in Paris, he will watch knowing he beat Rose, 1 up, on the day the Englishman became the No. 1 player in the world.
The comeback victory brought up a question: What was more important in Bradley’s career, his breakthrough victory in the 2011 PGA Championship at age 25, or his comeback in Pennsylvania at 32?
Bradley says the PGA, because it was a major, but both of his parents say it was the BMW. Bradley’s sports psychologist, Greg Carton, says they’re both fantastic for different reasons.
“People love seeing a guy like Keegan, who has struggled for a few years, getting his form back,” Carton said. “Some of those guys disappear and you never hear from them again. I’d say this was [bigger], as far as showing him, that he really belongs. A lot of guys win earlier in their career and get punished in a way. They don’t learn how hard the game is at times and then they’re expectations are sort of skewed. This is massive for him on a lot of levels.”