By Ryan Smithson and Chris Dunham, PGATOUR.COM
PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. -- Nicholas Bradley's golf gear is not normal. For starters, he keeps his "alive date," the day his convoy was attacked in Afghanistan, on a headcover in his bag. He marks his ball with a Purple Heart coin. Even the grips he likes are a tad different -- they are smooth and velvety to better accommodate his damaged hands.
Bradley, 29, is at TPC Sawgrass on a misty Monday preparing to take part in the inaugural Simpson Cup, a Ryder Cup-style competition that pits wounded American veterans vs. their counterparts in the British military. The two-day event was founded by John Simpson, the former manager of Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Greg Norman.
On the Stadium Course, the two teams have gathered for a pro-am. The Simpson Cup players are treating it as a full day of practice for the two days of play, which begin Tuesday on the Dye's Valley Course (Four-Ball, better ball) and conclude Wednesday on the Stadium Course with 12 Singles matches.
Bradley has already played the Stadium Course a couple of times, so he's using this Monday to get his swing grooved. His mangled right arm -- the one with 51 screws in it -- won't straighten much, but it allows Bradley to take the club back on a wonderful plane. Even with a right hand that won't close properly, he's able to use a low draw that enables him to boast an 8 handicap. When he's swinging well, his action is Hoganesque: A flat, quick action that compresses the ball.
It's hard to believe that Bradley didn't play much golf before Aug. 3, 2008. On that Sunday, the Air Force Staff Sargent was in the last truck in a three-vehicle group that was escorting an officer to a firing range. A pair of Taliban fighters were waiting with an improvised bomb, and they hit the button just as the second truck went through. The blast rocked Bradley -- driving the third truck -- and it exploded right under his right arm. He was knocked out for a couple of minutes, and when it was over, he was left with a crushed face, bone and foot.
Sixteen surgeries later, Bradley is out of the Air Force -- and playing golf anytime he can. He's already gotten a taste of what it's like to be a PGA TOUR regular -- he was invited to stay with Bubba Watson in September during The Barclays, and he caddied for Rickie Fowler in the pro-am that week. Bradley was there when Bubba shot video of himself hitting golf shots out the window in their rented house. That same week, Watson and Bradley played golf together at an exclusive club near Bethpage Black, swapping stories.
Bradley, who lives near Dallas, was then invited to play in the Warrior Open, which was a two-round stroke play event put on by the George W. Bush Presidential Center. Bradley ended up tying for fourth there, posting rounds of 81-86. Not long after that, Bradley was told that he had been selected to play in the first Simpson Cup.
"The last four months have been insane," Bradley said. "Lot of golf, lot of competition. It has been awesome. I can't get enough of it."
Neither can his teammate, Jorge Zapata. Like Bradley, he was hit by a roadside bomb. Zapata's alive date is Nov. 27, 2006, when his Humvee was hit in Iraq. The blast shattered his tibia and fibula, and it was a year before Zapata was able to walk at what he considered a “close to normal” level.
While at a V.A. hospital in Orlando, Zapata found a brochure for Fairways for Warriors and decided to give golf a try. Now an avid golfer, he is studying at the Professional Golfers Career College in Orlando and hopes to become a teaching pro. But first, his sights are set on competing with his teammates at the Simpson Cup.
“We are all brothers in arms,” Zapata said. “Even if we don’t know each other, we fought the same fights and work together, so there’s a link.
“It’s a true honor to be here, to be selected, to participate and to represent the United States. (It’s great to) just get the word out there to raise awareness and show future wounded warriors that there’s more to life after their injuries.”
Bradley was especially interested to meet and play against his British counterparts in the Ryder Cup-style event. British team member Stuart Ellis, who lost his right leg below the knee, teed off with a prosthesis bearing the Union Jack flag.
"The chance to get to play with other wounded vets inspires me ... and intrigues me," Bradley said. "They are great. They are just like us. We have multiple common bonds; We have all been wounded and love the game of golf. It’s an amazing thing that brings us all together."
Bradley's team ended up winning the pro-am after he got hot on his back nine and strung together a load of pars. The two teams ate dinner together Monday night in the TPC Sawgrass clubhouse, and honorary Captain Billy Krazert, a four-time PGA TOUR winner, got to say a few words, but there's plenty of emotion involved.
"The fraternity that defends our countries are special," Krazert said. "The inaugural Simpson Cup is off to a great start, and I am looking forward to seeing how it grows, grows and grows."