No place like home: Local favorite Bradley a favorite at BethpageAugust 22, 2012
Larry Dorman, PGATOUR.COM
FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- There's a case to be made that Keegan Bradley is playing better golf than anyone coming into the FedExCup Playoffs, and should be the odds-on favorite at The Barclays -- considering his victory at the Bridgestone Invitational and a T3 at the PGA Championship in the past three weeks.
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And though the arguments for Rory McIlroy (T5 at Bridgestone and eight-stroke victory at the PGA) or Tiger Woods (the only player on the PGA TOUR with three wins this season) are just as strong, one factor may just push the balance Bradley's way this week: home field advantage.
The Black Course at Bethpage State Park, the big, sprawling and demanding venue for the first of four tournaments in the Playoffs, is familiar turf for Bradley. In fact, he has almost certainly played more rounds at the Black than anyone in the field.
"I've probably played the Black 30 times, at least," said Bradley, 26, who has three victories in two years on TOUR. "It's my favorite course in the world, and it feels great to be back here. A lot of really great memories of this course."
Memories of Bethpage go back to 2005-08, Bradley's years as a member of the golf team at St. John's University in Queens. He and his teammates and their coach, Frank Darby, would pile into carpools and drive the 25 miles up the Long Island Expressway to Bethpage on Mondays when the golf course was closed. The superintendent, Craig Currier, would give the team the courtesy of the course.
"We'd pull up and park at his superintendent's house and we'd start on the third hole and play," Bradley said. "Because there was nobody out here, we could play, us all in one group -- seven, eight guys -- just having such fun little matches and basically having Bethpage Black to ourselves, which I don't know if there's anybody in the world that's ever experienced that."
Probably not. Then again, few in the world have experienced a golf ride like the one Bradley has had in the past few years. In 2009, a year after graduating from St. John's, Bradley was grinding it out on the Hooters Tour, down to his last $1,200 and trying to make enough cash for, among other things, the entry fee for TOUR Qualifying School. The deadline was the following week. He was a few thousand short.
He called a friend he had met a year earlier while hitting balls on the range at the Wheatley Hills Golf Club, some 20 minutes west of Bethpage on the Northern State Parkway. The friend, a New York area physician named Dr. Glenn Muraca, wired him the money he needed, plus a few thousand extra.
FedExCup standings The PGA TOUR enters the first week of the FedExCup Playoffs at The Barclays. The field will then be cut to the top 100 players in the standings for next week's Deutsche Bank Championship. Here are the top five players this week: 1 Tiger Woods 2 Jason Dufner 3 Rory McIlroy 4 Zach Johnson 5 Bubba Watson
"It was huge, what Doc did," Bradley said. "And it wasn't just that. Before I went on the Hooters Tour, I had this old, beat-up Ford Focus with the side mirrors duct-taped to the doors. One day he and some of the other guys said, 'We're buying you a car.' They bought me a brand new Honda CRV. It was unbelievable."
Muraca said he was impressed almost immediately by the struggling young golfer.
"I think it was just the way Keegan carried himself," he said. "You could see the hunger he had to succeed, and his pure love of the game. We all know what these young players have to go through to get out here. Talent was never a question. It was just economics, and we weren't going to let him run out of money."
Bradley quickly did his part. He paid the Q-School entry fee, qualified for full status on the Web.com Tour in 2010, and finished 14th on the money list. He had made it to the PGA TOUR for the 2011 season. All he did then was win the HP Byron Nelson Championship, the PGA Championship and a total of $3.75 million. He was voted PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year by his peers.
By winning the Bridgestone -- the one he let get away last year by shooting 41 on the back nine Sunday -- and then playing well at the PGA, he fought through some self-doubt that crept in earlier this year.
"I felt like I should have won a couple times early on," he said after the win at Akron. "I felt that I gave away a couple tournaments, one being Doral. It was kind of starting to bother me because I was having some really poor Sundays. At Greenbrier I shot 4 over on Sunday, and it was starting to get to me."
But it didn't stay with him long. With some help from Dr. Bob Rotella, Bradley has developed a short memory for the negatives. He already had a long memory for the positive, and on Wednesday at Bethpage Black he spent more than an hour visiting with some St. John's alums, signing autographs in a hospitality tent near the 17th hole, talking about ways to build support for the St. John's golf program that built him.
It's been a whirlwind four years since graduation for the New England kid, raised in Vermont, who honed his golf game at a college in Queens, who loves the Boston Red Sox and will be feeling right at home as a crowd favorite on Bethpage Black. He'll be playing with Steve Stricker and Matt Kuchar starting at 8:05 Thursday, one group ahead of Woods, McIlroy and Zach Johnson.
"I feel like I'm in a great spot for the FedExCup," he said. "I wasn't quite prepared after I won the PGA for what was coming. This is going to be a much better time for me this go-round."
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.