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BMW is Bradley's big chance to get back on track

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LAKE FOREST, Ill. – The decline finally felt real for Keegan Bradley in April.

After years as a mainstay near the top of the world rankings, Bradley’s game had been slowly slipping away for months as he made adjustments both on and off the course. But it wasn’t until his peers started their annual pilgrimage down Magnolia Lane without him this past spring that the former PGA champ took stock of just how far he had fallen.

“That was awful,” said Bradley, whose five-year Masters exemption for winning the 2011 PGA expired in 2016. “I normally would go early and practice and play a little bit. That was always super fun for me, and now I wasn’t allowed. I couldn’t go, so that was tough.”

It doesn’t seem that long ago that Bradley was christened as the next can’t-miss prospect when he burst out of obscurity during a steamy week at Atlanta Athletic Club, hoisting the Wanamaker Trophy in his first-ever major start. It was the second win of his rookie year, and another trophy followed the next summer at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.

But since then, the hardware has been hard to come by. Bradley is in the midst of a winless drought that now stretches more than five years, one he hopes to end this week at the BMW Championship where his 6-under 65 left him in a tie for second place, three shots behind leader Marc Leishman.

The 25-year-old who seemingly couldn’t believe his fortune after that playoff over Jason Dufner is long gone. In his place stands a 31-year-old man with a baby on the way, a seasoned veteran who now has to fight off an incoming group of younger talent and who has experienced both the ups and the downs that pro golf has to offer.

“It stinks. It’s no fun watching majors at home, no fun watching Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups at home,” Bradley said. “You start feeling bad for yourself.”

The crux of Bradley’s regression can be traced back to the anchoring ban that took effect last year. His win with an anchored belly putter at the 2011 PGA was one of the results that led the USGA to take action, and Bradley admittedly struggled to find a solution.

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After finishing 47th on Tour in strokes gained putting in 2014, he fell to 128th the next season and bottomed out at No. 183 on the greens in 2016.

“It was tougher than I thought,” Bradley said. “But I was going through stuff with my game as well where I was working on that, so it was kind of like I couldn’t focus on one thing long enough.”

Bradley failed to advance to the second playoff event in his native New England last year, but he opened the fall portion of this season with four straight top-25 finishes. That proved to be a harbinger of things to come, as a more confident and consistent Bradley now sits on the cusp of advancing to the Tour Championship for the first time since 2013.

While he deserves much of the credit for his own reclamation, he put a hefty amount at the feet of veterans who offered advice during his darkest moments. Bradley has gotten tips from Ernie Els on what it takes to rebound from poor stretches, and he still has a pipeline for advice from friend and former Ryder Cup teammate Phil Mickelson, who sent Bradley a note of encouragement prior to the opening round at Conway Farms Golf Club.

“He and I have been on a stretch where we are not playing at our best, and we are close to getting it back,” Mickelson said. “I just sent him a little text, ‘Hey, let’s have a special week. We’re close, we’re playing well, let’s put it together this week.’ Because his upside, his potential as a player is as high as just about anybody.”

A spot at East Lake remains the goal for all 70 players in this week’s field but it holds extra gravity for Bradley, who missed two of the four majors this year and entered the week ranked No. 95 in the world. A schedule constructed with fully-exempt status is nice, but it doesn’t compare to one replete with the spoils of making the season finale: spots in each of the first three majors as well as the WGC-Mexico Championship.

For Bradley, this week serves as a tantalizing opportunity to ensure his absence from Augusta National is short-lived.

“Get into the Tour Championship and your year is set,” he said. “You’re basically top 50 in the world at that point. So it’s always in the back (of the mind), somewhere.”

The game is still not as easy as it felt when he was taking the Tour by storm as a rookie, and the baby-faced grin is a bit more weathered these days. But after spending the last 11 months steadily climbing back onto leaderboards, Bradley has a chance this week to put an emphatic stamp on his return to form.

Suddenly, the lows of April seem far away.

“It was a lot more fun back then, I can tell you that. It’s a lot more fun winning, playing in majors and playing in Ryder Cups,” Bradley said. “But things are different for me now. I have a lot to look forward to, and a lot to work for. I’ve got a lot more years out here, so I look forward to that.”