Bradley comes of age post-PGA win
On Tuesday night, Keegan Bradley hosted the champion's dinner at the PGA Championship in Kiawah Island, S.C. The 26-year-old Woodstock, Vt., native served Maine lobster with filet, corn on the cob and ice cream sundaes. He was surrounded by all of his idols -- Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and probably most of the 13 past Wanamaker Trophy winners in the field this week at Pete Dye's Ocean Course.
Who might be 2012's Keegan Bradley?
Before winning the 2011 PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club in his first appearance in a major, Keegan Bradley had a smattering of success with a win at the Byron Nelson and a couple of top-10 finishes. He was just another young player who needed a breakout win like a major or a World Golf Championship tournament to establish himself as a formidable presence in the game.
Nothing takes you from a place of the everyman on tour to the elite like a major. After Atlanta, Bradley was suddenly thrust into the limelight with the pressure to succeed. Wait to see the pressure that proven stars like Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Bill Haas will face once they earn a major.
Who in the field this week at Kiawah might emerge as the next Keegan Bradley? There are many good, young players ready to use the PGA as a major stepping stone to the upper echelon of the game. Here are nine winners from this year to watch at Kiawah.
Kyle Stanley: The 24-year-old former Clemson star is hard to really know behind the dark sunglasses, but he is a tough competitor and pure ball striker. He's right on the brink of being really good. He easily could have two wins on the year but for an overly spinning wedge at the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines in January that cost him the tournament.
Scott Stallings: This 27-year-old former Tennessee Tech standout got his second career PGA Tour win last month at the True South Classic in Mississippi. A week later he had a tie for seventh in Canada. A streaky and long-hitting player, Stallings is playing just his third major.
Francesco Molinari: The Italian turns 30 this week, and he couldn't have a better birthday present than a win at the PGA. In June, he won in Spain, and he has five other top-10s, including two seconds. Molinari had a tie for 10th at the PGA in 2009 at Hazeltine for his only top-10 in 15 major appearances.
John Huh: In just his fifth career PGA Tour start, the 22-year-old Los Angeles resident won the Mayakoba Classic in Mexico. Then, later in the year he nearly won the Texas Open despite shooting a first round 77. Since a T-5 at the Byron Nelson, he hasn't done much, but he got his feet wet in the majors with a missed cut at the Open Championship.
Bill Haas: I know Jay's son won the FedEx Cup last year and has four tour wins, including one in Los Angeles in February, but the 30-year-old Wake Forest alumnus could use a win at the PGA to grab a spot on the Ryder Cup team and solidify his place as one of the top younger players in the game.
Rickie Fowler: The 24-year-old former Oklahoma State star and Walker Cupper had a spectacular May with a win in Charlotte, a T-2 at The Players Championship and a T-5 at Colonial. If he could win on the Atlantic Ocean clad in orange, it would be one of the most popular wins of the year. But he's got to prove that he can hold it together when he doesn't have his best stuff. He had an 84 in the final round of the Memorial and an 80 in the second round of the Bridgestone Invitational.
Branden Grace: Since winning twice in South Africa in January and the Volvo China Open in April, the 24-year-old South African hasn't done much, but you can't overlook a guy who's won three times. Grace has all the skills that could make him the next great South African major champion.
Ted Potter Jr.: The 29-year-old lefty from Ocala, Fla. was an unknown on the PGA Tour until he won the Greenbrier Classic last month. Potter's best finish outside of that win was a tie for 30th at the Honda Classic.
Thorbjorn Olesen: The 22-year-old Dane made quite an impression on the world at Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. A muscular kid with a cocksure flair, Olesen got his first win on the European Tour in April at the Sicilian Open.
It's easy to imagine Bradley watching his heroes eat from his New England menu with the wide-eyed satisfaction of a young man having his first beer with the older kids on the block.
A year after that life-changing weekend in Atlanta, Bradley is a very different player from the one who won the PGA Championship in his first appearance in a major. He's now an accepted member of the tour elite with a certain roster spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team that will face off against the European squad in September at Medinah. His come-from-behind win last week in Akron was more assurance that he could elevate his game under big-time pressure.
"[The PGA] definitely changed the way I look at myself as a player, not as a person, but as a player," Bradley said Tuesday. "I realize that I get an opportunity to do some pretty special things.
"I realize that I can stand up and play well under the pressure of a major championship, and that means I can play well in tournaments to win."
Yet Bradley's greatest asset might be that he's still that starstruck kid trying to prove that he belongs on the PGA Tour. He's still the son of a middlebrow club pro that played his college golf at St. John's in Queens, N.Y., overshadowed by just about everybody in the amateur game. He's still the fella who dared to peek through the fence of Augusta National on his way to some Carolina mini-tour event in a battered Ford Focus long before he got a chance to play the Masters. He's still that fan who can talk about Mickelson as though he were simply eternalized on a baseball card and not a real colleague on the PGA Tour.
"It's an honor to be in that younger group of guys out here that's kind of making a move," Bradley said. "I've always felt like I should be in that category, growing up with guys like Rickie [Fowler] and Rory [McIlroy], and I just wasn't quite there. And I'm finally in that conversation now."
Bradley has as many majors as McIlroy and more tour wins than Fowler. With three victories in almost two full seasons on tour so far, Bradley could have a better career than these two players and everybody else in the conversation about the present crop of good young players.
It's an understandable human and professional need for him to want to be included among the most talented of his generation, but Bradley doesn't need acceptance into an in crowd. He should keep reminding himself of his deep roots as the under-the-radar player who sometimes takes too long to play his shots.
Whether it was during the Northern Trust Open earlier this year, where he couldn't control his spitting, or at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where he allegedly took five minutes to hit a shot, you know you're watching a man at work when Bradley is on the course.
With Bradley there isn't the air of cool that comes with McIlroy or that irresistible flair of Fowler. When Bradley stands behind the ball during his pre-shot routine, he gives the impression with his eyes and body that he's looking down a dark, narrow tunnel, and that he has to see light on the other side before he plays his shot. But it works for him.
It also works for him to hold on to his humble roots. On Tuesday he talked about what it meant for him to be that overlooked guy.
"In my head, I still am," Bradley said. "I think in my head, I'll always think that. You think when you get here, you're going to get on tour and you won and you can just relax. Once you do that, it gets even harder."
As the defending champion this week at Kiawah Island, Bradley won't be overlooked, especially after his win in Akron. It's hard to look past his preparedness for the 7,676-yard Ocean Course. Under pressure, he can hit driver as well anyone else on tour.
"This is a course that you must drive the ball straight and long and well because the rough is brutal, the course is long, and if you hit it in the fairway, you're going to have some good looks at birdies, very similar to Firestone," Bradley said. "And I feel like when it's a challenging driving course, it's a good course for me."
Bradley will certainly need to have a great driving week on the Ocean Course. But he'll give himself the best chance of succeeding if he brings that same excitement, freshness and wonder at playing in a major championship that catapulted him to the top of the game last year in Atlanta.
On Tuesday, he said that Mickelson was the kind of player that he wanted to be someday.
"I think Phil is a very hard worker, very serious about his game, but also comes and hangs out and has a match with me last year when I hadn't won yet," Bradley said. "I was a nobody out here, and it's a pretty cool thing to be like that."
And as he probably will learn more in the coming years, it's also a pretty cool thing to beat your heroes in the biggest tournaments, then sit around and talk about it with them over some of your favorite foods.
2012 PGA CHAMPIONSHIP
In recent months, Rory McIlroy admitted he heard the questions about his game going south. After Sunday's record-setting win at the PGA, those critics have been silenced. Gene Wojciechowski
2012 champion: Rory McIlroy
Course: The Ocean Course at Kiawah Island
Where: Kiawah Island, S.C.
Yardage, par: 7,676 yards, par-72