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Editor’s Note: This feature first appeared in issue 180 of bunkered (June 2020).
To the victor, the spoils. Everybody knows that. But about the loser? What happens to him?
Such is the way of the world that meetings with triumph are far more comprehensively documented than encounters with that other imposer adversity.
And so it has come to pass that Europe’s courageous, audacious and frankly outrageous 2012 Ryder Cup victory has passed into sporting perpetuity as one of the greatest comebacks of all time. So much so, in fact, that the ‘Miracle at Medinah’ has become the received shorthand for that particular match.
Beaming photos of players such as Rory McIlroy, Martin Kaymer, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Paul Lawrie, Ian Poulter and, of course, their captain Jose Maria Olazabal have become the defining images of that incredible clash, their grins as wide as the first fairway of the Old Course and eyes twinkling with ecstatic incredulity.
By contrast, their beaten opponents – Davis Love III’s Americans – are largely overlooked in accounts of that stunning final day fightback. Most people with a US bias have spent the last eight years trying to forget about it. Trouble is, it’s not that easy.
Just ask Keegan Bradley.
Now 34, the Woodstock-born man was a 26-year-old in only his second year on tour when he made his Ryder Cup debut at Medinah.
With the veteran Phil Mickelson for company, he played a central role in helping the US to establish what was, at one stage, a 10-4 lead. Commanding opening day wins over Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, and Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, were followed on the Saturday morning with a thumping 7&6 win over Donald and Lee Westwood.
The pair were then inexplicably benched for the Saturday afternoon. The loss of momentum and energy that Bradley and Mickelson had brought to the opening day-and-a-half’s proceedings allowed Europe’s stirring fightback to begin.
What had looked like a certain victory turned into an unlikely defeat – and the pain of that loss has haunted Bradley ever since.
“I think about that Sunday almost every day,” he tells bunkered. “I think most of the guys probably do. I just remember how bummed out I felt. It was a tough deal. On Sunday night, that’s usually the night that everybody gets together, has some drinks and lets their hair down at the end of a long week. There was none of that for us.
“The next morning, I remember getting up and getting ready to leave and they were dismantling the team room, taking down the name tags, the decorations and so on, and it was really brutal. Like, ‘ten out of ten’ brutal. And like I said, it’s something I think about pretty often because the memories are so conflicted. On the one hand, they’re incredible but then, on the other, they’re not. I often find myself thinking what it would have been like if we would have won.
“You’ve got to hand it to Europe. They played incredible. I mean, Ian Poulter, he just played so great. I was flicking through the TV channels recently and I happened upon highlights from that year. I won’t lie, I quickly turned it off. It’s too hard to watch.”
After his unexpected Saturday afternoon off, Bradley very nearly sat out Sunday, too, thanks to his opponent Rory McIlroy almost missing his tee time. The story of the Northern Irishman arriving at the club in a police car with only minutes to spare has become an intrinsic part of the legend of that day. Despite his less than ideal preparation, McIlroy defeated Bradley 2&1 in the third match out to reduce the Americans’ advantage to one point.
Bradley admits the situation unnerved him.
“It was unsettling,” he says. “I remember an official came up to me and said, ‘Hey, if Rory doesn’t show up, he’s disqualified’. I said, ‘Listen, I’m not going to forfeit this match. If he shows up late, we’ll just let the guys in front go off and we’ll go after them.’ Taking a point away from him just because he hadn’t show up on time would have been so weird and I didn’t feel good about that at all. As it worked out, he showed up with something like 15 minutes to spare and there was just a lot of commotion. But hey, he played great.”
Despite the outcome and the particular circumstances of it, Bradley still describes that week as “the most fun I’ve ever had playing golf”.
“It was just such an incredible week,” he says. “I mean, don’t get me wrong, I was absolutely terrified. Seriously terrified. I felt like I was living outside of my body for most of it. But once we got inside those ropes and started playing, it was unreal. Phil and I were just so tough. We relished every moment. It seemed like we were always up against really formidable opponents but I think it brought out the best in us. We bounced off each other really well. We had so much fun. We just clicked. You know, I look back on it and think how lucky was I? I was on the first tee of the Ryder Cup and I had Phil Mickelson – one of the greatest players ever to play the game – standing alongside me. It doesn’t get much better.”
If Bradley sounds grateful for the opportunity to represent his country on such a stage, that’s because such a notion would have been fanciful for him just two years prior. As Colin Montgomerie’s European side were squeezing their way past Corey Pavin’s Americans in the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor, Bradley was on the Korn Ferry Tour – or Nationwide Tour as it was then – trying to muscle his way onto the PGA Tour.
Two years before that, as Paul Azinger’s side was romping to victory over a Nick Faldo “inspired” Europe at Valhalla, Bradley had just graduated from St. John’s University, a private Roman Catholic university in New York City. Over the next 12 months, he learned his craft on the Hooters Tour, the de facto third tier of pro golf in the US.
“It was great for me in a lot of ways,” he says. “I learned how to travel, plus they were four-day events so there was a cut. Relatively speaking, for somebody fresh out of college, we were playing for big money. The winner of some of the tournaments got $35,000. I mean, for me, that was unbelievable. It was the richest I’d ever been.”
In 2010, after coming up two shots short of a card at PGA Tour Q-School, he played a full schedule on the Nationwide Tour. Hindsight is twenty-twenty, of course, but Bradley believes that year was the making of him.
“Looking back, I’m so thankful that I didn’t get my card that yet because I wasn’t ready,” he says. “I played great on the Korn Ferry that season and, although I didn’t win, I managed to finish 14th on the money list and got my PGA Tour card. So, by the time my rookie year came around, I was ready. I wasn’t in awe of the other players or anything like that. I never felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there. I felt like, ‘Okay, this is what I’ve been working towards’ and I was ready to go.
“All of those steps I took got to me to where I am. I feel so bad for some of those kids who don’t go through that because you can get very easily swallowed up on the PGA Tour. It’s a lot to deal with. But having gone through what I’d gone through to get there, I felt ready to go.”
There was also another unexpected fillip awaiting him when he got to the main tour.
“I found it actually suits my game a lot better than the Korn Ferry,” he says. “On the Korn Ferry, you have to shoot ridiculously low every round, every week. There’s not a lot of rough and there are no Torrey Pines or Rivieras to contend with. Each week, you turn up with the mindset that, ‘Okay, I need to shoot seven-under just to make the cut’. It’s no joke.
“The PGA Tour suits me better because it sets up for guys who drive the ball straighter and who are a little longer off the tee. It’s not just a putting contest. So, to get my card the way I did, coming through that tour with the odds kind of against me, I really view that as one of the biggest accomplishments of my career.”
In May 2011, just nine days shy of his 25th birthday and on only his 16th PGA Tour start, Bradley claimed his first victory courtesy of a play-off win over Ryan Palmer in the HP Byron Nelson Championship.
Even better was to follow just three months later when he held off Jason Dufner, again via a playoff, to win the US PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. In so doing, he became only the fourth golfer in the history of the game to win on his major debut, following in the footsteps of Willie Park, Sr, Francis Ouimet and Ben Curtis.
“I look back on it now and it seems just completely surreal,” he says. “I can’t even watch the highlights of it because I expect something to go wrong. I mean, I know it doesn’t, obviously, but it seems almost too crazy to believe that it happened.
“It’s funny, I remember standing over the putt that I had to win. I rolled it up to about two feet and I honestly almost went and tapped it in but something came over me that said, ‘Listen, you’ve got to mark this. Take your time. Concentrate.’ You know, that’s such a life-changing putt if it goes in but also if it doesn’t. Winning major championships is everything to us and it’s something that such a small proportion of the human population ever get to experience. So, yeah, it’s something I’m hugely proud of.
“At the start of that year, I had no thoughts of even playing in the majors, let alone winning one. I never had to go through that pressure of ‘finally winning a major’ because I did it on my first go. But then, all of a sudden, I’m a major champion – but I’ve never played in a US Open, I’ve never played in a Masters, I’ve never played in an Open Championship. So, that was a huge learning process for me. I remember some time not long after I won at Atlanta going online and looking at all of the places I’d get to play with my five-year exemption and, man, it was so exciting just to think, ‘I’m going to play St Andrews’ and ‘I’m going to play Augusta National’. That was a lot of fun.”
He also found himself rubbing shoulders with some of his heroes, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods amongst them.
To his credit, Bradley openly admits that it’s part of his game he is working hard to fix.
“It’s a weird thing,” he says. “I’m not proud of it but it’s something I’ve worked on and will continue to work on to get better. It’s just one of those things.
“One of the things I struggle with is a little bit of OCD that’s quite a big contributor to it. I’m not making any excuses but that’s something I have to work on and, over the last year or so, I’ve really tried to.”
Unlike when he first burst onto the tour, he’s also now married with a young family. Consequently, spending several weeks at a time on the road is more challenging than ever, particularly after three months of unexpected home time brought about by the coronavirus lockdown.
“This is something I was talking to my wife about recently,” he says. “I missed putting my son Logan, who’s two-and-a-half, to bed one night later on in the quarantine. I had been up at the golf course and I just missed him going to bed and it was horrible. Throughout quarantine, I had been able to put him to bed every night and had been home for so long that the thought of going back out on tour was a little scary.
“I got so used to living a quote-unquote normal life. You know, striking that family-golf balance is something that I’ve grown up hearing older pros talking about and I always thought it wouldn’t be that big of a deal but it certainly is. It tough when you miss the firsts. You know, ‘This is the first time he did such and such’ and you’re not there to see it. That’s where Facetime and Zoom are such game-changers because you’re able to see them and talk to them every day.
“I think people forget that even cell phones are a relatively new thing. I’ve spoken to some of the older caddies about it and they’ve told me about trying to call home from the road back in the days before cell phones. If your family called you and you weren’t in your room, or you called them and they didn’t pick up, that was it. There were no texts, no emails, no voicemails. It’s funny when you think about it. The world has changed a lot in a very short space of time.”
In and of itself, that last statement is almost a perfect summary of Keegan Bradley’s career to date.
And you can’t help but feel like the best is yet to come.
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