Keegan Bradley takes aim at his hero

PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. -- In 2011, Keegan Bradley was an awestruck 25-year-old rookie who won two PGA Tour events, including the PGA Championship. Only two years removed from the hardscrabble existence of the Hooters Tour, the Woodstock, Vt., native was suddenly cast into the limelight. Through college at St. John's University and the Nationwide Tour, he had never been that can't-miss kid, the one who was a sure thing to become a big star. He is the kind of guy who might sometimes pinch himself to make sure that the courtesy cars, the free gear and the money on the PGA Tour are all real.

He was starstruck the first time he met Phil Mickelson, at last year's Shell Houston Open. Even after beating Mickelson and the deepest field in golf at the PGA, he continued to show the utmost deference to all of his golfing idols. It meant the world to him to finally be paired with Phil in a tournament in August at the Barclays.

Getting a fist pound from Mickelson before he played on Sunday at the PGA at the Atlanta Athletic Club had been the encouragement that he needed to come back from 5 shots back of leader Jason Dufner with three holes to play to beat him in a four-hole playoff. A fist pound.

"At the PGA, I'm walking to go hit some balls on the range and I'm walking by Phil and he gave me a fist pound and said, 'Go get 'em today,'" Bradley said.

"If you would have told me five years ago that that would have happened, I'd probably have been laughing at you. It's really cool. He deserves a lot of credit. The guy is just a really great guy."

Now Bradley will have an opportunity to beat his idol and good friend in a head-to-head battle in the final round of the Northern Trust Open at the Riviera Country Club. After the third round, the two golfers, who share the same agent, are tied for the lead at 7 under par, 1 shot clear of three players.

Bradley shared the low round of the day with a 5-under 66 with Bryce Molder, who will fill out the threesome with Mickelson and him on Sunday.

How will Bradley handle the pressure of trying to beat one of his favorite golfers? Will he have that killer instinct that it will take to beat one of the hottest players in the game? His only other time playing in competition with Mickelson came last year in the first two rounds at the Barclays, where he missed the cut. Nothing against Dufner or Ryan Palmer, the two guys he beat in playoffs last year, but they don't have the intimidating presence or résumé of Mickelson.
Those were qualifying matches that have hopefully prepared him for the heavyweight title bout with Mickelson on Sunday.

"I can promise you I do want to beat Phil, and he wants to beat me," Bradley said. "I just look forward to the challenge of going out there and being in the hunt with him.

"I feel more comfortable this year than I would last year playing in the final group. I've got that going for me. I love Phil. Everything he's done for me is great, and if I didn't win tomorrow, I would hope he would."

Mickelson is equally fond of Bradley. "I think he's a tremendous talent, and I like playing with him," Mickelson said of the rising superstar. "You can rough him up a little bit, and he'll give it right back. We've got a good banter, and I enjoy being around him."

But don't expect them to be singing "Kumbaya" as they walk down the Kikuyu fairways at Riviera. This has been a very difficult golf course. The lead has moved only 2 shots since Mickelson's opening round 5-under 66. With a very bunched leaderboard -- 12 players within 4 shots of the lead -- anyone can emerge out of the pack if they can tame these tricky poa annua greens and the unpredictable Santa Ana winds.

But most eyes will be on Mickelson and Bradley. How they play their opening nine holes in the morning will dictate what happens in the afternoon. There might be a lot of good-natured fun between the two of them, but we should also expect a good fight with the mentor and mentee embracing one another at the end, regardless of who wins. Still, a win for Bradley might finally lift him from feeling like a kid in a candy store to the one who makes the candy.

He might always be in awe of Mickelson, but at least he'll have the satisfaction of beating the 41-year-old mentor, which might make a win at Riviera this week more significant to him in the long run than his triumph at the PGA.

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