Commentary

For Keegan Bradley, a Southern comfort

Updated: September 22, 2011, 11:40 PM ET
By Farrell Evans | ESPN.com

ATLANTA -- When Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship last month at the Atlanta Athletic Club, he became an overnight sensation: a 25-year-old rookie with a major championship. Suddenly, a once unheralded golfer out of the lowly respected golf program at St. John's was being touted by many as the best young American player.

A Presidents Cup nod from team Captain Fred Couples was clearly in his sights now -- the consideration a no-brainer. But then the Woodstock, Vt., native began to struggle -- missing his next two cuts, at the Barclays and the Deutsche Bank Championship. Last week, he righted the ship some with a tie for 16th at the BWW Championship, but by then Webb Simpson was garnering all the praise for a promising American youth movement on the PGA Tour.

[+] EnlargeKeegan Bradley
Allan Henry/US PresswireKeegan Bradley's 6-under 64 put him in a pairing with Jason Dufner on Friday at the Tour Championship. Just over a month ago, the two battled in a three-hole playoff at the PGA Championship.

"Keegan is still a wide-eyed kid," said his caddie, Steve "Pepsi" Hale. "The Barclays and the Deutsche Bank were going to be tough events for him anyway, regardless of whether or not he won the PGA. He had 50 ticket requests from family and friends at the Deutsche Bank.

"It's been 30 days since the PGA. It's out of his system. He can concentrate on his game."

With a 6-under 64 on Thursday in the first round of the Tour Championship at the historic East Lake Golf Club, it looked as if Bradley's heroic win 20 miles up the road in Johns Creek, Ga., was a distant memory.

"[Thursday] was the best Keegan's played since the PGA," Hale said.

One of Bradley's seven birdies came at the difficult, uphill par-3 235-yard 18th hole, only one of six par breakers made there all day. He got his round going at the par-3 second hole by holing out from a greenside bunker for birdie.

"It was a good day out there," Bradley said. "I just felt comfortable right from the start. It's nice to kind of get back to playing golf again. There's been a nice separation to the PGA, and it's nice to kind of not have to worry about anything else but playing golf."

Bradley owns a 2-shot lead over Jason Dufner, Chez Reavie and Luke Donald after the opening round.

When the second round begins on Friday, Bradley and Dufner will be paired together -- an irony not lost on either player after their three-hole playoff for the PGA Championship, where Bradley ultimately prevailed.

"I don't think there's any surprise," Bradley said. "[Jason] likes this grass [Zoysia fairways and Bermuda greens], too. He likes these courses.

"The greens are immaculate. They're identical to Atlanta Athletic Club, and I think we both liked the look of that course. And this course is very similar."

Dufner is glad to be back in the south, where by his account he's made 60 to 70 percent of his money on the tour. After the PGA, he missed two straight cuts, but rebounded nicely with a tie for sixth last week at the BMW Championship.

"I'm just very comfortable on Bermuda greens," said Dufner, who grew up playing at Weston Hill C.C., near Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. "It's just kind of home for me. And when I get on these greens, for whatever reason, I can putt pretty well. I get on that bent [grass], I kind of struggle, or [on] that poa annua [grass]."

Reavie continued on his steady rise as a player to watch in the coming years with a 4-under 66. At the par-4 17th, a tight driving hole with water down the left side, the 29-year-old Arizona State grad pulled his drive left into the water. Then from the drop area, he hit a 7-iron to four inches to save par.

"It was one of the easiest pars I had all day," said Reavie, who came into the tournament eighth in the playoff standings.

On Thursday, until the rain started in the late afternoon, the course conditions were ideal for scoring. The players say that the rough is not as penal as it's been in the past. But there is the potential for the ball to nestle in the Bermuda rough.

"You're going to have to make some saves around here," said Charles Howell III, who shot a 3-under 67 in his first round. "There's too many difficult holes and tee shots, you're not going to hit every fairway."

Still, the par-70, 7,319-yard East Lake course offers the players a lot of variety.

"You hit a bunch of different clubs," Reavie said. "Some holes you're hitting a 3-wood and a wedge, or some holes you can even hit a driver and get it down there by the green and have a pitch shot."

It's way too early to predict Sunday's outcome, but Bradley is making a strong case for why he should be Couples' final Presidents Cup pick. On Thursday, he didn't deflect attention from the pressure on him to make a favorable impression on the U.S. captain.

"There's nothing more pressure packed than Q-school, but making the Presidents Cup team is a close second," Bradley said. "I really want to make the team, and I'm trying not to think about it, but it seems like about every third hole it pops into my mind.

"I am trying my hardest not to think about it, but it happens."

Aaron Baddeley made a similar sentiment after his 68.

"I had my chance of making the [International] team and I didn't get it done," he said. "It's out of my trouble. All I can do is try to play well."

If the tournament had ended on Thursday, Luke Donald would be the FedEx Cup playoffs winner after his 66. Webb Simpson, who is ranked No. 1 in the standings coming into the week, would finish third after his 69.

Bradley would be second if he wins the tournament and Couples would surely make him his last pick on Sept. 27. But there is a lot of golf left to play.

Bradley's memories of this town are still fresh and he hopes those good vibes can help him stay on track for the rest of the week.

"I'm sure this doesn't happen a lot where you get to come back a month later in the same city that you won a major," Bradley said, "so it's really fun."

Farrell Evans covers golf for ESPN and can be contacted at evans.espn@gmail.com.

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