The winner of the 93rd PGA Championship and unlikely savior of American golf is a skinny, freckled kid from Vermont with a long putter, a Hall of Fame aunt, a degree from not a golf powerhouse St. John's, no girlfriend and, most important, no fear. Keegan Bradley, 25 and playing in his first major, won this PGA with perfect golf in a three-hole playoff against another up-and-coming American ball-basher, Jason Dufner. But it was Bradley's wild finish in regulation that demonstrated an uncommon fortitude and portends a very bright future.
This is an article from the Aug. 22, 2011 issue
Two shots out of the lead playing the brutal 259-yard, par-3 15th at Atlanta Athletic Club, Bradley pulled his tee ball, and it settled into a nasty lie in the grabby bermuda rough. An overaggressive chip trickled across the green and into a water hazard. The triple bogey left him five shots off the lead with three holes to play. Game over, right?
"Bradleys don't quit," says Keegan's aunt Pat, the 60-year-old LPGA Hall of Famer who won six major championships. "If he learned anything watching me, it's that you never stop grinding, you fight for every stroke."
Many players called the four-hole finishing stretch at AAC the toughest they'd ever faced, and all Bradley did was finish birdie, birdie, par, emoting all the way. Dufner's three straight bogeys beginning on 15 necessitated the playoff, and given new life the buoyant Bradley simply refused to lose.
The mad scramble that began with the triple bogey is the kind of high jinks popularized by Bradley's mentor and frequent practice-round foil, Phil Mickelson. But with Phil the Thrill showing the early onset of the yips and Tiger Woods looking evermore lost, American golf has been in the doldrums, allowing a new generation of international players (and golden oldie Northern Irishman Darren Clarke) to win the previous six major championships and dominate the top of the World Ranking. Bradley's starmaking performance has suddenly changed the landscape as he has positioned himself to be the American Rory McIlroy, a youngster with not only a ton of game but also a winning personality.
"There are three things I like about Keegan," Mickelson says. "One, he's enjoyable to be around. He's a fun guy, he's smart, he treats people well—a quality person. Two, he has so much talent. He hits it long, he has a lot of shots, he has a nice touch. Three, he doesn't back down. Ever. His attitude is, Bring it on. You take that fearlessness and all that talent, and he's going to do big things in this game. And because of the kind of person he is, the fans are going to respond to him."
Bradley's ascension is all the more enjoyable because he has never been a can't-miss kid. Growing up in Woodstock, Vt., his first love, skiing, was stoked by his father, Mark, and mother, Kaye, who were active in the competitive skiing community. Keegan had his first pair of boots at 18 months and competed in his first race at age six. By his early teens he was being groomed for the U.S. national team in slalom, giant slalom and Super G. Kaye is not prone to hyperbole, but she says, "He was very, very good technically. I think he had the talent to make it to the Olympics, if that had been his dream."
When the snow melted, Mark worked as an accredited PGA professional, and he imbued in his son the bedrock fundamentals of a powerful, repeatable swing. At 14, Keegan decided to dedicate himself solely to golf, but he still benefits from his skiing background. "Skiing and golf have a lot of similarities in terms of they're very mental," he says. "You're in that starting gate all by yourself with that scary course in front of you. It is kind of similar to standing on that 18th tee with maybe a one-shot lead. Actually, skiing is a little more intense. This is easy compared to that."
Lightly recruited out of high school, Bradley matriculated to St. John's, enticed by the chance to practice at such celebrated courses as Bethpage, Shinnecock Hills and Friar's Head.
After winning nine college tournaments and graduating with a degree in sports management, Bradley apprenticed in golf's minor leagues, where there are many elegant swings and just as many fidgety putting strokes. Last year on the Nationwide tour, he mastered the belly putter, which is anathema to traditionalists but helped Bradley unlock his vast potential. By virtue of his 14th-place finish on the money list, he played his way onto the PGA Tour this season and was already looking like the rookie of the year after his playoff victory at the Byron Nelson Championship in May.
The week before the PGA, Bradley was in position to win the World Golf Championship-Bridgestone Invitational, but he blew up on the final nine and was still shaken as he arrived in Atlanta. A practice-round pep talk from Mickelson helped him refocus, and Bradley was further buoyed by sharing a house with Kaye, his sister Madison and her son, Aiden Keegan, a 10-month-old charmer. Mom cooked dinner every night and every morning made the two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that Keegan eats during every round. He is a finicky, fastidious young man, and the PB&Js have to be made to his exact specifications. With a roll of her eyes, Kaye explained that Keegan likes a base coat of peanut butter to prevent the jelly from soaking through the bread.
The family's bond is palpable, and on Sunday evening, after the emotional finish, Aiden was the only one of the bunch who wasn't crying. (The Bradleys are divorced; Mark was at home in Wyoming, where he is head pro at Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club. Meanwhile, Aunt Pat monitored the telecast from her house in Hyannis Port, Mass., where she received an estimated 300 texts, e-mails and phone calls during the final round.) After the trophy ceremony Keegan and his mom and sister and nephew were ushered into the Atlanta Athletic Club's clubhouse for a champagne toast with club members and tournament volunteers. "This feels like a dream," Bradley told the room, in his typical aw-shucks way. "I hope it's real." He thanked the greenkeepers for their fine work and then drew a big laugh by saying, "If I could make one suggestion, I'd cut the rough on the back edge of the 15th green."
Bradley was hailed as the fifth winner in the history of the tournament whose father was a member of the PGA of America, and his voice caught a little when he said a few heartfelt words about his dad's influence. It was also pointed out that Bradley is only the third player to win the first major in which he competed. Ben Curtis did so at the 2003 British Open; he's often lumped in with PGA Championship winners Rich Beem and Shaun Micheel as Americans who have failed to build on their breakthroughs. Bradley knows there will be naysayers, and he says, "I don't want to be one of those guys that kind of disappears. I don't plan to."
The other player to win the first professional major in which he played was Francis Ouimet, a moonlighting caddie who was 20 when he shocked the world at the 1913 U.S. Open, a victory that went a long way toward popularizing golf in this country. The baby-faced Bradley seems like Ouimet's natural heir. That may be a lot of pressure for a rookie, but it's clear the new PGA champ won't let the sudden success go to his head. When it was time for the champagne toast, Bradley took only one dainty sip.