Bradley's major success started with Nelson victory

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May 16, 2012
Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor

IRVING, Texas -- What if Keegan Bradley failed to rally in the final round of last year's HP Byron Nelson Championship? What if he had settled for a top-10 finish and a decent-sized paycheck after starting the day four strokes off the lead? What if he hadn't beat Ryan Palmer with a par on the first playoff hole at the TPC Four Seasons Resort to claim his first PGA TOUR win?

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Does Bradley go on to win the PGA Championship three months later? Does he win Rookie of the Year honors at the end of the season?

Are we even writing about him today?

Probably not. Even Bradley will tell you that.

"This tournament," Bradley said as he prepared for his first title defense, "might have set up my whole career, to be honest with you."

Given that Bradley is just 25 years and has what should be a lengthy and productive career ahead of him, we won't know the full impact for a while. But he can certainly make the argument that his victory at the TPC Four Seasons Resort a year ago had a direct influence on his ability to win the first major he played in.

Consider his four days here: Although he opened with a 4-under 66, Bradley failed to break par in the next two rounds, which is why he found himself four strokes off the pace heading into Sunday.

But on a course that would rank among the five toughest on TOUR in 2011, Bradley showed his survival skills. He played the final nine holes in 1 under, more than three strokes better than the field average, and was one of just four players to play the final nine without a bogey. He made a clutch par putt from 12-1/2 feet at the 71st hole, and then waited for Palmer to finish an hour later.

Then on the playoff hole at the 18th, both players drove right of the fairway; in fact, tournament officials had to move a lemonade stand to allow Bradley to hit his second shot. Bradley produced a courageous cut shot to avoid the water guarding the green, while Palmer's shot from a similar line was not as fortunate.

Those were the first signs that Bradley played his best when the pressure was at its highest. It would serve him well at the Atlanta Athletic Club when he overcame a late triple bogey with consecutive birdies to catch Jason Dufner and eventually win in a playoff.

Keegan Bradley

With two wins in his rookie year and the stats to back them up so far in this season, Bradley?s rapid ascent to the PGA TOUR?S elite level has not been a fluke.

"He has the ability to focus the last few holes and overcome poor shots, the way he did at the PGA to win, the way he attacked the 18th hole here last year," said Phil Mickelson, who has taken Bradley under his wing and offered advice.

"A lot of guys were playing conservative. He starts out over the water, hit a cut, and he has the ability to focus when he needs to. And he has that intangible of being able to close the deal that you just can't acquire."

Bradley said that his life changed that Sunday a year ago. The win obviously opened all kinds of doors to high-profile tournaments and gave him the kind of security -- re: a two-year exemption on TOUR -- that made him the envy of other rookies. His world ranking jumped from 203rd to 94th, and he claimed a spot in the PGA Championship field.

Once in Atlanta, he drew upon his experiences from the HP Byron Nelson, the confidence he had acquired and the knowledge of how to deal with pressure.

Perhaps just as important at the PGA Championship, Bradley could concentrate on simply winning the tournament -- without having to worry about the other intangibles.

"People don't realize what the stress level is of a rookie on the PGA TOUR, trying to keep your card," Bradley said. "I played on the Hooters Tour and thinking about going back is scary. And to know I was on the TOUR for at least 2-1/2 more years was huge.

"At the PGA, I didn't have the pressure of having to win my first tournament or having to worry about making enough money to keep my card, stuff like that."

Until a year ago, Bradley was mainly known as the golf-playing nephew of LPGA legend and World Golf Hall of Famer Pat Bradley. Although he's obviously making a name for himself now, the connections with his aunt will always be strong ... even though their conversations have evolved.

Before, Keegan and Pat basically talked about just feeling comfortable at pro tournaments. Now, the discussions are more centered around what it takes to actually win those tournaments.

"It's cool how it's evolved," Keegan said. "She has helped me a great deal."

Nancy Lopez, who was in town this week to accept the Byron Nelson Prize for her philanthropic work, remembered the first time she saw Keegan. "A little bitty guy," she recalled. "I didn't know that he played golf at the time."

Now she has a keen interest in him, thanks to that LPGA-Pat Bradley connection.

"Pat was more in the zone, as we were talking about last night," Lopez said. "He enjoys the whole thing. She said she was definitely in a zone; she didn't talk to a lot of people. She was focused on what she was doing on a golf course.

"So you see a difference, but you notice that competitiveness is there. I'm sure she has given him a lot of tips."

One tip that Keegan Bradley received from someone else, however, may have been the biggest tip of all. It came from his caddie, Steven "Pepsi" Hale, who convinced his employer that the TPC Four Seasons Resort would suit Bradley's game better than the tighter confines of Colonial, a shot-maker's course that Bradley originally had on his schedule.

"He said, 'I think you should play Nelson and skip Colonial. Nelson fits your game better,' " Bradley recalled. "Sure enough, we came here and won.

"Pepsi knew something I didn't, and thank God, he convinced me to do it."

Indeed. Bradley's life hasn't been the same since.

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