SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. – Consider it golf’s version of No Man’s Land.
While storylines often bounce from aging veterans to young guns, Keegan Bradley is sort of … in between. Established, but not a veteran. Short of his peak years, but hardly a newcomer.
Bradley often is grouped with the game’s newest crop of stars, but at age 28 he is embarking on his fifth full season on the PGA Tour. Four years have passed since his breakthrough win at the PGA Championship, a victory that led to Rookie of the Year, and more than two years have gone by since his last win of any kind.
He might not fit a conventional label, but after an opening 65 at the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Bradley strode to the podium to confirm that he is not lacking for confidence.
“I’m in a different place now than I was even last year,” Bradley said. “I feel different just walking around, more comfortable, and I think that’s important.”
Even in his post-round habits, that comfort is clear. He handled the throngs at TPC Scottsdale as well as would be expected from a disciple of fan-friendly Phil Mickelson. After taking the early lead, he devoted as much of his news conference to discussing his round as he did to his thoughts on the upcoming Super Bowl and his beloved New England Patriots.
He has been here before, he expects to be here again, and he carries himself accordingly.
“I feel as though I belong out here,” he said. “I have friends out here now. I stay in the same hotels, I know places to go eat that I like, places to go.”
Spots out here are usually reserved for players who crack $2 million in earnings, as Bradley has in each of his first four seasons. Last year’s total, $2.82 million, was the first time he finished with less than $3 million.
He’s certainly not lacking for pocket change. The only deficit, relatively speaking, is in the trophy case.
Bradley won twice in his rookie year, but since then he has just one victory – a come-from-behind win at the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational when Jim Furyk made double bogey on the 72nd hole. Since then, multiple 54-hole leads have come and gone, while Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker have four victories apiece.
As a result, his goals for this season are clear: create as many chances as possible to end the drought, and cash in on at least one.
“My main goal is to put myself in contention,” he said. “I want to win, most importantly, but to be there is my goal, because I feel as though the guys that are the best in the world are consistently on top of the leaderboard.”
The comment belies Bradley’s unusual status in the game. At No. 32 in the world, many would consider him already among the upper echelon, but for Bradley there’s still room to improve. On the other hand, he no longer fits the mold of a rising star.
“I’m 28. I think you’ve got to be under 25 to be a true young gun,” he said.
It’s a similar situation to the one faced by Rickie Fowler, who is viewed as a member of the Tour’s next generation of stars but at age 26 is making his seventh appearance this week at TPC Scottsdale.
“I don’t know if that’s considered to be a vet yet, or if I’m still young. I guess I’m kind of in the middle,” said Fowler, who opened with a 1-under 70. “Last year and this year I have had a couple groups where I have been the oldest player. Maybe that’s veteran territory, I don’t know.”
Like Fowler, Bradley’s rise to stardom was a quick one. In fact, it doesn’t get more extreme than winning your first major appearance, as Bradley did at the 2011 PGA.
The ascent may have been unconventional, but the result is clear: Bradley is among the Tour’s best, even if he still has plenty of years ahead of him and plenty of goals to chase.
“It’s a big adjustment to go from, you know, playing Hooters Tour to a couple years later being out here,” he said. “It’s a process. I finally feel as though I’m settling in.”
Nothing in between about that.