Coming down the mountain
Keegan Bradley ‘retired’ from ski-racing at a young age to pursue his lifelong dream of golf
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
We interrupt the sultry stream of summer warmth, the post-round T-shirts and sandals, and the priceless joy of racing sunsets during twilight strolls on the back nine to bring you the view from 2,100 feet atop Smuggler’s Notch during the deep-freeze days of March.
And not just any view. We offer a ski-racer’s view.
“When you’re staring out at Vermont cold, the ice and wind and snow, and you’re standing there in the starting gate, I don’t think there’s a scarier place in sports,” Keegan Bradley says. “There are no teammates. It’s all you. It’s all about your guts.”
Yet he loved it, didn’t he? He had the guts.
Bradley acknowledges with a smile, then explains why.
“You had to go push yourself, almost to a dangerous line.”
That dangerous line was in play in the March cold 20 years ago, an event called the Vermont J4 State Championship. It was held at Smuggler’s Notch, a quintessential New England ski resort that is much closer to Montreal (95 miles) than it is to Boston (210 miles), though when you’re lifted to the top of the peak, the floor of heaven is your nearest point of relief.
Yet, Bradley and his competitors couldn’t have envisioned wanting to be anywhere else. The J4s ... well, their world stopped for this.
“This was Vermont, and I’m prejudiced, but if you’re a kid and you’re a ski-racer, there’s no better competition,” Bradley says, “and at the start of the year, that’s what you wanted to be – top 10 in the states. It was a big deal. It was everyone’s goal.”
In March of ’99, the 12-year-old Bradley not only had that goal – to be top 10 – but he had a sparkling first run and found himself in third place. Special stuff for the kid whose home mountain was called Suicide Six and who was competing against the best Vermont could offer, most notably Tim Kelley, who would someday be a member of the U.S. Ski Team and a competitor on the World Cup circuit.
Visions of a stirring victory may have accompanied Bradley up the mountain for his second run, but something else was more dominant. “Nerves,” he recalls. “I mean, I was so nervous, and I just didn’t do well.”
No surprise, but Kelley was the class of the J4s that day. Yet, Bradley overstates his demise. True, he was slower in Run 2, but his overall 1:35.40 was good for ninth. The coveted top 10. “I went home happy,” he says, with a smile. “I mean, the junior skiing in Vermont is arguably the best in the country, so top 10 was pretty good.”
It was as good as it ever got in skiing for Bradley. His father, Mark – who was Keegan’s coach in both golf and skiing – remembers how the next winter, at the state championships at Bromley Mountain, the seeds of a pro golf career officially took hold. “He was good. He was really, good,” Mark says, “but for whatever reason, skiing didn’t do it for him.
“He did well at Bromley, but something was different. We were back on the mountain after the race and I asked him, ‘What’s going on?’ He said, ‘You know.’ I said, ‘I don’t know. You have to tell me.’ He said, ‘I’m all done with skiing.’
“And then, he skied down to the lodge.”
For Mark, who professes to love skiing equally as much as he does golf, it wasn’t a shock. Golf was in the family DNA. Sister Pat, in the year when Keegan was born, 1986, won three LPGA major championships and is enshrined in the World Golf Hall of Fame. Brothers Chris, John and Rick were passionate about the game. So, while it was a jolt to hear that his son, at 13, was “retiring” from ski-racing, Mark Bradley could understand the pull of golf.
Little did he know, though, that his son was not done traversing mountains, especially some with more vertical than Smuggler’s Notch and Bromley. In 2011, having finally made it onto the PGA TOUR at the age of 24, Bradley had a meteoric rise, winning two tournaments, including his first start in a major championship, the PGA. The next year, he won a World Golf Championship, the Bridgestone Invitational (now the FedEx St. Jude Invitational), and the resume was impressive – three career wins in 48 PGA TOUR starts.
It was as if he had blitzed a downhill field on the Kitzbuhel’s Streif in Austria, so brilliant was this run through a gauntlet of elite golf competition. Bradley’s introduction to the PGA TOUR put some serious cache on his resume – a major, a WGC, Ryder Cups in 2012 and 2014, a Presidents Cup in 2013, a sparkling partnership with Phil Mickelson (5-1-1) in international play – and the kid who had barely been on the radar when coming out of college was now a world-class attraction.
But as you digest how rapid and unexpected was Bradley’s ascent in 2011-12, consider this: In many ways Keegan Bradley thinks he scaled an even taller mountain in the summer of 2018, when at 32 he returned to the winner’s circle at the BMW Championship at Aronimink GC in Newtown Square, Pennsylvania. Nearly 20 years since he had given up ski-racing, Bradley felt as if he had ridden back into the clouds.
“The BMW win was special, more special in a lot of ways, because my family (wife, Jillian; son, Logan) were there to share it, and because I knew what it took to get back to that spot,” Bradley recalls a year later. “The BMW is a big tournament for us, so that it made it that much more awesome.”
When the BMW Championship tees it up Thursday, Bradley will be sitting 66th in the FedExCup standings. Hardly as lofty a position as he’d like – especially since being Top 30 and eligible for the TOUR Championship is every player’s goal – but some intangibles are at play here to lift Bradley’s spirits.
There will be the sentimental return to Medinah Country Club where Bradley in 2012 was a central figure in arguably the wildest and most stunning Ryder Cup ever. Crazy scoring binges by Ian Poulter and Nicolas Colsaerts highlighted Europe’s first two days, but Bradley and Mickelson – as cohesive as peanut butter and jelly – helped counter it by dominating play. Bradley was set free by Mickelson, who encouraged his younger mate to let it rip and what followed were impressive team wins over a stellar cast of Euros – Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia (4-and-3), Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell (2-and-1) and Lee Westwood and Donald (7-and-6).
“OK, so Sunday wasn’t so great,” smiles Bradley, who was the Singles opponent in wait during the infamous late-arriving McIlroy that Sunday. With a late kick, McIlroy won, 2 and 1, to help build the Euros’ wave of early momentum that produced a riveting 8.5- 3.5 session and 14.5 - 13.5 team win.
“But to be part of those matches with Phil was a memory I’ll have for the rest of my life.” And, yes, he suggested they’ll start flowing forth when he sees Medinah this week for the first time since 2012.
“I know there are a lot of great holes there and I can’t wait to get back on the course.”
There is also the location of Medinah, just on the outskirts of Chicago, a city Bradley feels connected to by virtue of a friendship he treasures. In Michael Jordan, Bradley said he has a mentor and confidant who provides priceless guidance.
“He’s one of the most generous people, with his time and advice, that I’ve ever met,” says Bradley, who considers this friendship to be the definition of surreal. “I mean, I idolized Michael when I was a kid. When he came out of retirement to play for the Wizards (2001-02 when Bradley was 15), I couldn’t sleep the night before.”
Then when they started bumping into one another at the same courses in the Jupiter, Florida, area, rounds of golf presented themselves and Bradley discovered a kinship. “It’s very rare when someone you admire actually matches that level in real life when you meet them,” Bradley says “But MJ’s passion for golf is real and we bonded over that and I consider myself lucky enough to call him a friend.”
That Bradley was the first player to wear the Jordan brand of golf shoes provides a sense of pride, though it doesn’t spare him from something that is as legendary as the man’s incomparable soar-through-the-air-with-tongue-hanging-out slam-dunk.
“His ability to trash-talk is incredible,” laughs Bradley. “He’s amazing. He can give it right back to you without thinking for a second and kill you with a comment that just crushes you.”
Likely, Jordan put aside the trash-talking and had nothing but a warm embrace when Bradley returned a PGA TOUR winner from Aronimink. While it may have lacked the stirring dramatics that Jordan was famous for, Bradley’s win surely involved a gut-check that deserves a second look.
The fact is Bradley’s current scenario isn’t that different this year from 2018. He’s 66th in the FEC standings right now, but he was situated in 52nd place headed into Aronimik and probably wasn’t factoring in the guest list for the TOUR Championship. Even when he worked his way into sixth place through 54 holes, Bradley wasn’t exactly on the radar on the eve of the Monday finish, but in a brilliant close that had to have his pal MJ smiling, Bradley closed with a 64 to get into a playoff with Justin Rose.
That Bradley even earned a share of first through 72 holes left him surprised. That his emotions rode a roller-coaster was no surprise.
“I birdied 16 and 17 and at the time, I had a two-shot lead,” Bradley says. “But Rose had a par 5 still to play and I figured I needed to par 18 just to get into a playoff.”
He was knocking on the door to his first win in six years when “I hit the worst shot of the tournament,” says Bradley. Wide left with his drive at the 18th, he made bogey and was resigned to watching Rose par that hole to win. Only the Englishman hiccupped over a 5-footer. Shocked as Rose was, Bradley was even more so. “I sat there and watched, knowing he was going to make the putt."
Instead, Rose lipped it out, then he bogeyed the 18th to open the door for Bradley.
The last time the occasion had presented itself to win, Bradley wasn’t married or a father. “But you have watched players’ kids run out onto the green and you always want to be part of that,” says Bradley, who opened his arms as Logan came rushing forth. This was the slice of his stunning win that made him appreciate his PGA TOUR career more than how 2011-12 unfolded.
“When I won (in 2011 and 2012), it was great and it was exciting,” Bradley says. “But the BMW, I really felt it. I felt the hours of practice, the down time, falling outside the Top 100 in the world rankings. I felt it all.”
It had taken him a mere 48 tournaments to win three times back in his younger years, arguably a stretch of success that Bradley concedes he didn’t appreciate. But this long climb, 160 tournaments since his previous win, well, it was well worth the wait, arguably the biggest mountain challenge he’s ever met.
“It happened so quickly. I went from thinking I blew my chance to win, to getting into the playoff, to winning that I didn’t quite soak it all in on the green,” Bradley says. “But when I got back to the hotel with my wife (Jillian) and son (Logan), it was surreal. I couldn’t believe what was going on.”
Logan, he was told, wasn’t even a year old, so he didn’t quite know what was going on as he joined in the festivities on the 18th green. Bradley laughed, because the Aronimink finish was such a rush of changing emotions he didn’t know, either.
“But someday he will,” Bradley says. “That’s the best part.”