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Mastering A Monster Michael Bradley overcame a pro's worst nightmare, and some demons of his own, to win at Doral

March 16, 1998
March 16, 1998

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March 16, 1998

Mastering A Monster Michael Bradley overcame a pro's worst nightmare, and some demons of his own, to win at Doral

One minute on Sunday, Michael Bradley was on the leading edge of
the sharpest competition in years at the Doral-Ryder Open. The
next he was in the middle of a nightmare.

This is an article from the March 16, 1998 issue Original Layout

Bradley, an intriguing mix of talent and tenuousness, was
leading John Huston and Billy Mayfair by a stroke at the
windswept and scary Blue Monster at Miami's Doral Golf Resort &
Spa when he lipped out a birdie putt on the 11th hole. After
marking and replacing his ball 10 inches from the cup, Bradley
took his normal two practice swings, addressed the ball and made
his stroke. The dimpled devil dived deep into the left side of
the hole, did a snappy 180-degree turn and spun out, stopping
defiantly at the front door.

In that instant, Bradley's left leg buckled. He quickly made an
unsteady step forward and nudged in his bogey putt as his rosy
face turned sickly white. "I can't explain it," he would say
later, unwilling to relive the moment. "I still don't really
know what happened."

What happened was that Bradley had paid a visit to pro golf
hell. The fact is that point-blank muffs like Bradley's happen
every week on Tour, but the players rarely talk about them. They
might joke about a shank or a chili dip, but they don't find
anything funny about tap-ins that don't drop. Why? Because they
know the ugly truth: At nerve-racking moments, any putt is
missable. It's this evil knowledge that all pros fight to
forget, but never can.

Dazed, disoriented and disbelieving, Bradley struggled to
regroup on the 12th tee. His prospects were not good. Not only
was he tied with two players who had already won this year, but
his tendency to fade when in contention also seemed to have
shifted into overdrive. Worse, he was about to play the meanest
holes on an unforgiving course.

On such make-or-break moments do careers turn, and in the space
of the next hour, Bradley might have pushed his in a new and
positive direction. First, he made what he later admitted was a
terrifying two-footer for par at the 12th to wipe clean his
short-term memory of the miss at 11. Then, following a superb
eight-iron from a fairway bunker, he holed a 10-footer for
birdie on the par-4 16th to regain the lead after both Huston
and Mayfair, playing ahead, had missed short putts of their own,
though they were snakes compared to Bradley's piddler. Finally,
Bradley came to the most dangerous and time-honored test on the
course, the 443-yard 18th, playing into the wind and over water.
He threaded a full-blooded drive down the pike, blocked a
six-iron away from the water guarding the left side of the
green, then ran a delicate 50-foot chip five feet past the pin.
Facing the kind of putt tournament closers thrive on, Bradley
smoothly stroked his ball into the hole to win by one.

"Michael reached down and regrouped," says Bob Rotella, the
sports psychologist who has worked with Bradley. "He understood
the challenge is not about never missing a short putt. It's
about not falling apart when you do. It's about not deciding
that you are going to miss every putt, or that you have
forgotten how to make a short putt. Winning is about handling
mistakes, and Michael handled a very big one very well."

The victory removed all traces of callowness from Bradley, whose
only previous victory in six seasons on Tour came at the 1996
Buick Challenge, which was rain-shortened to 36 holes. As a test
of shotmaking, Doral is on the first rung of the Tour's regular
events, as the quality of its past champions--among them, Nick
Faldo, Raymond Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Lee
Trevino--attests. Bradley's 72-hole total of 10-under-par 278
was the highest winning score on the Blue Monster since 1985,
restoring its stature as one of the fiercest tracks on Tour.

As the kickoff to the four-tournament Florida swing leading
toward the Masters, Doral used to enjoy unchallenged status as
the first really big event of the year, but that's changing. The
impressive increases in the purses of the West Coast
tournaments--five of the seven full-field events offered at
least $2.1 million this year--made Doral's $2 million prize seem
ordinary. Phil Mickelson said that was one of the reasons he
passed on Doral this year.

There was also a backlash to the penal changes Floyd made to the
Blue Monster last year. Prompted by the 23-under and 19-under
scores shot by Norman in 1993 and '96, respectively, Floyd added
200 yards, put in 18 new bunkers and enlarged several others,
drastically narrowing the driving areas. After Steve Elkington
won in 1997 at 13-under, several players privately expressed
dissatisfaction with the renovations, and this year eight of the
top 20 on the World Ranking were missing, including, in addition
to Mickelson, Doral regulars Ernie Els and Fred Couples. Two
other hot golfers, John Daly and Tom Watson, also took the week
off.

"I didn't like the course last year," says Mark Calcavecchia,
who claimed the alterations turned the Blue Monster from a place
where power players once excelled into one better suited for
accuracy-oriented, shorter hitters. "Of course, I've got too
much respect for Raymond to tell him what I thought," adds
Calcavecchia, who finished 30th last week.

Somehow, though, Doral got the message. This year seven of the
new bunkers were removed, in particular the two on the right
side of the 18th fairway that narrowed the landing area to less
than 20 yards. The slightly softened Blue Monster, however, was
still a handful in last week's gusty winds. With the fairways
and greens firm and fast, and with most of the holes playing
into a crosswind, finding the fairway required skillful driving.
Approaches from the rough routinely bounced over the putting
surfaces, and the scalped Bermuda greens produced more
three-putts than ever. In the third round, when gusts reached 30
mph, only two players, Mayfair and Paul Azinger, broke 70 on the
par-72, 7,125-yard course.

Floyd accepted the criticism of his work with equanimity, but
biting his tongue may have lit an inner fire. Hanging near the
lead all week before finishing with a pair of 73s and in 15th
place, seven shots behind Bradley, Floyd made a respectable bid
to become, at 55, the oldest player by nearly three years to win
a Tour event.

There were precious few other big names on the board. Colin
Montgomerie and Norman missed the cut. Nicklaus, giving the USGA
some evidence to support the notion that he deserves a sixth
special exemption into the U.S. Open, made the cut before a
closing 77 dropped him into an age-matching 58th. Azinger made
his best showing of the year by tying Floyd and was in
contention until running into trouble late in Sunday's round.
Jim Furyk, who tied for ninth, shot a 62 on Friday that
qualifies as the round of the year. Curtis Strange shared the
first-round lead with a 68 before finishing 41st, which was
deceiving because he made a quadruple-bogey 8 on the 72nd hole.

Fortunately for the tournament, Tiger Woods was in the field for
the first time, and that's all it took to break previous
attendance records at Doral. On Sunday an estimated crowd of
53,000 came to see if Woods, who was three strokes behind, could
catch Bradley. The day before, Woods had hit an electrifying
shot to close out his round, nearly holing a 148-yard seven-iron
from a fairway bunker. Aware that it was the kind of shot that
rebuts critics who say he lacks the ability to finesse his
irons, Woods reacted by looking directly into the CBS camera
following him to the green and exulting, "How about that one,
huh? Oh, baby, I love it."

Woods, whose last Tour win came eight months ago, in the Western
Open, is also aware of the talk that he is losing his
competitive edge. When he strode onto the putting green on
Sunday morning, he wore an expression that fairly screamed: I
intend to win. "Whoa, man!" said Azinger when he saw Woods.
"Have you got your game face on or what?" Woods barely smiled.

But as has been his pattern, Woods made enough mistakes in the
final round to negate any heroics. He put himself at a
disadvantage by three-putting the 1st hole, a downwind par-5,
for par and proceeded to play the other three par-5s in
one-over. He trailed Bradley by five shots at the turn, and
though he rallied with two late birdies, any chance to win ended
when he failed to birdie the par-4 17th. When he dunked his
approach shot on the 18th into the water and made double bogey,
Woods dropped into a tie for ninth, his worst finish on Tour
this year.

While much of the focus on Sunday was on Woods, the unassuming
Bradley had been the man in charge all week. A 31-year-old from
Largo, Fla., who generates seemingly effortless power, Bradley
grabbed a share of the lead after going eagle, birdie, birdie in
the middle of a second-round 66. His 70 on Saturday left him two
strokes clear of Stewart Cink. Throughout the tournament Bradley
put on a ball-striking clinic, hitting 61 greens in regulation,
three more than the next best player, Vijay Singh. Bradley had
an inordinately high number of putts for a
winner--124--especially when compared to the 101 needed by
Elkington and Norman the previous two years.

Hitting the ball has never been a problem for Bradley. At six
feet and 190 pounds, he's a strong, natural swinger with a
beautiful pace, in the same category as players such as David
Duval, Els and Davis Love III. Last year Bradley had the longest
measured drive on Tour, 381 yards at the Walt Disney World
Classic. At Doral, because of a herniated disk in his back, he
hardly practiced, but his swing needs so little maintenance that
it didn't matter.

Bradley's only teacher has been his 72-year-old father, John, a
club pro for more than 40 years who now teaches at Bloomingdale
Golfers Club outside Tampa. "Michael and I just work on his
basics, mostly setup and alignment," John says. "He has a gift
for swinging the club correctly."

All that Bradley lacked was confidence. He shot a 63 at Riviera
to take the lead after the first round of the '95 PGA but
finished 54th. When he went to the Masters for the first time
last year, he shot 12-over 156 to miss the cut by a mile.
"Mentally, I've been a little lax," he admits. "It has
frustrated me, especially coming down the stretch, because I
know I can do better. It eats at you. There has to be a point
when you say, 'Hey, don't be afraid anymore, just play.'"

Judging by the way Bradley responded to his trip to golf hell on
Sunday, there's a good chance he has finally passed that point.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN MAKING A SPLASH Bradley doesn't try to hide the fact that in the past he might not have been mentally strong enough to win. [Michael Bradley hitting ball out of bunker]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN GOLDEN OLDIE Floyd, 55, responded to his critics by making a run at the title, and a Tour record set by Sam Snead in 1965. [Raymond Floyd playing golf]COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JACQUELINE DUVOISIN PEOPLE'S CHOICE Woods had the star power at Doral but made too many mistakes to get his first Tour win in eight months. [Tiger Woods playing golf in front of crowd]
Doral used to be the first really big tournament of the year,
but that's changing.
When Woods doubled 18, he dropped to a tie for ninth, his worst
finish on Tour this year.