Wednesday, March 28, 2012
Updated: April 1, 7:44 PM ET
Keegan Bradley's batting a thousand
By Bob Harig
You don't do what Keegan Bradley did. You don't show up for your first major championship, having never competed on such a stage, and contend, let alone win. You don't play a Grand Slam event and hoist the trophy in your very first try.
Keegan Bradley did, of course, which makes him 1-for-1 in major championships in his career heading to the Masters next week at Augusta National.
Oh, sure, others have done it. Well, it's happened exactly twice in the last 100 years.
Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open at The Country Club in Brookline, a historic victory for many reasons, not the least of which it was such an important win for American golf and he defeated two of the game's icons at the time, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray.
Ninety years later, it happened again, when Ben Curtis -- a rookie on the PGA Tour who had gotten into the Open Championship via an obscure exemption category -- managed to hold off the likes of Thomas Bjorn, Vijay Singh, Tiger Woods and Davis Love III to capture the Claret Jug in 2003.
Then it was Bradley at last summer's PGA Championship, where he rallied over the final holes and then defeated Jason Dufner in a three-hole aggregate playoff to win.
His finish included rebounding from a triple-bogey at the 15th hole, where he seemingly had gifted the tournament to Dufner.
"It's a really impressive feat for him to do that, especially the way he played the last three holes after tripling 15,'' said Phil Mickelson, who has served as somewhat of a mentor to Bradley. "That type of mental focus is something that you can't really teach. He just kind of has it. He has that ability to perform under the clutch, just like he did when he birdied 18 at Riviera.
"He just knows how to do what he has to do to get a win or to get up there. I just have a lot of respect for his game. I think he's going to do very well and compete strongly this year at Augusta.''
Mickelson's Riviera reference was to the Northern Trust Open in February, where the two played the final round together -- and where both made clutch birdie putts on the 72nd hole to force a playoff eventually won by Bill Haas.
Bradley, 25, was named PGA Tour rookie of the year in 2011 because he also won the HP Byron Nelson Championship, where he won a playoff with Ryan Palmer. That made him the tour's youngest winner of the season and propelled him on quite a ride, considering he played college golf at St. John's and was just two years removed from the mini-tours.
Despite his early-season success, Bradley was not eligible for the Masters, U.S. Open or British Open last year. He got into the PGA based on his victory at the Nelson.
But after that lapse at the 15th -- where Bradley chipped across the green and into the water at Atlanta Athletic Club -- he trailed by five. A combination of Dufner errors and two birdies over the closing holes by Bradley led to the tie, and then a victory in a three-hole playoff.
The Ouimet correlation Bradley earned with the win is especially meaningful to Bradley given both of their New England roots.
"I've been studying the history a little bit,'' Bradley said. "I'm aware of Francis Ouimet and anytime you're mentioned in the same sentence as him, it's pretty cool to me because of my New England heritage. Pretty cool for me. Every time I look at the Wanamaker [the PGA Championship trophy], I realize how special it is. And I appreciate it more.''
Not even Tiger Woods was able to accomplish Bradley's feat, although he did win his first major as a pro. But when he won the 1997 Masters, it was Woods' third time at Augusta National and he had already played in six majors.
"That's pretty impressive, isn't it?'' said Woods, who has won 14 majors. "The one thing that comes to mind is what Fuzzy did at Augusta, but I think he might have played previous majors prior to that.
"To come out of the blocks in your first time yeah, Jason made a few mistakes, but also, I mean, Keegan really put it on him at the end, made him work for it and forced his hand. That's what's amazing to me is that he was able to play that well for the first time he's ever been there. He handled the situation fantastically. And even when they both hit it tight there in the playoff at 16, he made the putt.''
Woods' reference to Fuzzy Zoeller is another fun fact for Bradley to keep in mind heading to his first Masters.
Other than the initial Masters in 1934 (won by Horton Smith) and the second in 1935 (Gene Sarazen), the only player to win the Masters in his first attempt was Zoeller in 1979.
Perhaps that is a fluke of nature, but most feel it is a testament to how important experience is at Augusta National. There is so much to learn, and Bradley has been doing his best to take advantage of the perk that comes with an invitation. He went to play the course with his father, and was also there for a practice round with Mickelson.
When asked if they kept score, Mickelson joked, "Well, 1-up, 2-up,'' in reference to the fact that there was likely a nice wager between the two.
That's all good with Bradley.
"I'm really trying to focus in on Augusta and trying my best to play well there my first year,'' he said. "I'm going to put a lot of time in and there's not a better person to go up to Augusta with than Phil. I seem to go play with Phil, he gives me a good beating and I play really well ...
"It seems to work out. But playing with Phil, it's more intense playing against Phil in a match than it is out here. I don't know why, and it seems to relax me in some way or make me feel more comfortable. I seem to play good golf.''
Mickelson said the best way to learn Augusta is to play it in tournament conditions. Most players will tell you the course is vastly different once the tournament starts. It gets firmer, faster -- sometimes seemingly overnight.
Bradley will have played several rounds at Augusta prior to the tournament starting. Then it becomes something else.
"I still have a lot to learn, for sure. Augusta is something I really want to learn,'' he said. "I've never [played] in a U.S. Open or a British Open, either. I look forward to getting out there.''
It is a lot to ask of a player to be successful in his first Masters, just as winning a major on the first try is a rare, rare feat.
But at least Bradley has this going for him: if he is unsuccessful at Augusta, he will still be 1-for-2 in majors. And that looks pretty good, too.
|At the 2011 PGA Championship, Keegan Bradley put his hands on the Wanamaker Trophy at Atlanta Athletic Club.|
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.