From the time he was around 5 years old, Keegan Bradley tagged along in the summers with his father to work. Mark Bradley was a teaching pro at clubs in Wyoming, Vermont and Massachusetts, and his son loved to golf.
“One day, he must’ve been 9 or 10, I told Keegan, ‘Look, why don’t you take a day off? Go swim in a creek with your buddies or something,’ ” Mark Bradley told Golf Digest. “You know, go be a normal kid.”
In that moment, the same stubbornness and intensity golf fans around the world now see from Bradley was on display for dear ole Dad. “No,” Keegan answered back, “it’s what I want to do.”
With his third full year on the PGA Tour nearly complete, Bradley is showing he can do it quite well, and if his first two PGA Championship appearances are any indication, he could contend at Oak Hill this week. The 27-year-old already sleeps next to one replica Wanamaker Trophy, the one he earned in storybook fashion at the 2011 PGA at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
Playing in his first major championship, Bradley overcame a triple bogey on the 15th hole to beat another then-relative unknown, Jason Dufner, in a playoff. Bradley shot 3-under in the six holes following that near-disaster at 15 and joined Francis Ouimet, Todd Hamilton and Ben Curtis as the only players to win the first major they played.
“That’s one thing that’s so good about him. When he gets angry from not playing well, he can channel it. He has been controlling that for a long, long time now and that’s made the difference,” says Frank Darby, Bradley’s college coach a St. John’s. “He’s got passion and you see everything. It’s fun to watch.”
The Bradley name has good karma in Rochester. Keegan’s aunt, Pat, won the first-ever LPGA tournament here, the Banker’s Trust Classic in 1977, and also counts the 1985 Rochester International among her 31 victories. A World Golf Hall of Famer, the highlight of her career was coincidentally the same year Keegan was born. Pat won six times in 1986, including three majors.
“He was born to do this,” says Pat, 62, a six-time major winner who posted seven top-10 finishes in 15 trips to Rochester. “I think he’ll like Rochester. He respects the game, the tradition of it and Rochester has great golfing fans. They’re passionate about it. They appreciate the game.”
Keegan never won any of his 30 Web.com tournaments in 2009-10, but enough solid finishes earned him his PGA card for 2011. He had a couple of top 10s in his first 15 events, but also missed the cut six times before his first breakthrough in May when he won the Byron Nelson.
The week before the PGA, he posted three rounds in the 60s and was 15th at the Bridgestone Invitational. Feeling good headed to Atlanta, he opened with an even-par 71, then shot 64, 69 and 68.
“It was a life changer for a lot of different reasons,” said Keegan, whose career earnings already exceed $10 million. “A lot of people knew more who I was. (It) kind of validated my position out here on Tour as one of the top players. It just was a lifelong dream to win a major championship, and it kind of put me in a different category with some of my idols.”
There was no sophomore jinx either for the 2011 PGA Rookie of the Year. Last year, Bradley won the Bridgestone, finished tied for third with another strong PGA Championship and earned a spot on the Ryder Cup team. He co-starred in golf’s biggest event with his idol, Phil Mickelson.
They went 3-0 as teammates and Bradley’s emotional and ferocious style made him a favorite among American fans. But he has his quirks, too, like eating a couple of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches during each round and the way he reads putts. He crouches near the green, rests the handle of his putter on his right shoulder and turns his head, eye-balling the line like a surgeon staring at where he’s about to slice.
A big Boston sports fan who loves the Red Sox, Patriots and Celtics, Bradley is a former competitive skier, and says he appreciates what he has now, including a huge house in Florida. After his parents separated before his senior year of high school, he lived in a trailer with his father, sleeping on the kitchen table because his 6-foot-3 frame was too long for the bed. They nicknamed the trailer Tin Cup II.
“I never remember it being terrible. I remember loving it,” he told Golf.com. “The story of me growing up in Vermont and skiing, people don’t want to care about that. It’s the trailer park that people want to hear about.”