Posted by: Mike Cornelius | August 5, 2012

With Guts And Putts, Keegan Bradley Proves He’s For Real

When he won last year’s PGA Championship it was easy, perhaps even tempting, to dismiss Keegan Bradley’s victory as a fluke. Yes he had won on the PGA Tour earlier in the year, but Tour rookies playing in their maiden major championship aren’t supposed to be hoisting the trophy on Sunday afternoon. After a triple-bogey at Atlanta Athletic Club’s 15th hole, Bradley was five shots back of tournament leader Jason Dufner. But he birdied the 16th and 17th, and when Dufner made three consecutive bogeys coming home the two were headed for a three-hole playoff. Bradley went birdie-par-par in the playoff, good enough for a one stroke victory over Dufner’s effort of par-bogey-birdie.

Yet Bradley’s possession of the Wanamaker Trophy wasn’t enough to convince captain Fred Couples to name him as one of two captain’s picks for the U.S. Presidents Cup team. Perhaps Couples thought that the win at the season’s final major was as much about Dufner’s late collapse as Bradley’s charge. Whatever the reason, Couples instead preferred Tiger Woods and Bill Haas, who won the 2011 Tour Championship as well as the season-long FedEx Cup points race. Bradley has admitted that the snub stung, though his eventual selection as the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year likely served as a balm.

Later this week Bradley will defend his major win, this time at the Ocean Course on Kiawah Island. He will do so coming off his third PGA Tour victory. It was another improbable win, this time at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, played at venerable old Firestone Country Club. Once again, there will probably be those doubters who will point to Jim Furyk’s stunning double-bogey at the tournament’s final hole. But that requires ignoring Bradley’s brilliant final round 64; and no one watching him make six birdies with no bogeys and one magnificent par save at the 18th on Sunday can seriously doubt Bradley’s game or his determination.

Furyk did his best to pull off the extraordinarily difficult task of leading a tournament from wire to wire, in the end coming up just one hole short of doing so. He scorched the par-70 South Course at Firestone with an opening 63, the low round of the tournament; then followed that with a 4-under 66 on Friday to move to 11-under par at the halfway point. An even par effort on Saturday allowed the field to creep closer, but Furyk was still the man to beat when final round play began. With a negative weather forecast for Sunday, tee times were pushed up and the golfers went off in threesomes. As predicted the skies over Akron opened up before the leaders could tee off, suspending play for almost three hours.

Once the rain stopped the final threesome took to the course, with Furyk leading Louis Oosthuizen by one shot and Bradley by four. The 42-year old American started strong with three straight birdies, one more than the South African and two more than his young countryman. For Oosthuizen three bogeys in the space of six holes through the middle part of the round would prove especially costly. Furyk meanwhile gave a stroke back with a bogey on the par-4 6th hole before recording nine consecutive pars.

But while Furyk was stuck at 13-under and Oosthuizen was falling off the pace, Bradley was moving ever closer to the lead. A birdie at the par-3 7th took him to 2-under for the day and 9-under for the tournament. One year ago Bradley had been in contention at this tournament until a 41 on Sunday’s final nine sent him tumbling down the leaderboard. This year his movement was in the opposite direction. Bradley rolled in putts of 23 feet on the 10th hole, 7 feet on the 11th, and 9 feet on the 14th to move to 12-under par, just one behind Furyk.

Then on the par-5 16th hole all three added to the PGA Tour’s video highlight reel for the next “these guys are good” advertising campaign. Furyk and Bradley were on the green in regulation, while Oosthuizen’s approach had flown the green, ending in deep rough in front of the grandstand. First the South African lobbed a delicate pitch onto the putting surface, the ball rolling down the slope and falling into the hole for an unlikely birdie. Then Furyk struck a confident putt from 17 feet that found the heart of the cup for his own birdie. Moments later Bradley rolled in his own 11-footer to complete the trifecta and remain within one of the lead.

From all reports the Vermont native is an extremely likeable young man, but when he is at work his demeanor is one of extraordinary intensity. When lining up putts he has a habit of turning his head slightly to the right; thus his pale blue retinas peer down the putting line out of the left corners of his eye sockets. With his lids narrowed the intense gaze can best be described as the eyes of an assassin. On the final hole at Firestone, Bradley went for the kill.

A sudden wind shift fooled both Furyk and Bradley at the last, and both sent their approaches to the right of the green. Furyk had a difficult downhill lie out of the rough, but he still had a one shot lead and Bradley’s ball had plugged in the adjacent bunker. But the veteran tried to get too cute with his third. Rather than chipping safely onto the green even though that would have meant hitting away from the flag, Furyk aimed at the hole, hoping to land his ball in the fringe and have it roll down toward the cup. Instead his shot barely cleared the bunker, the ball stopping in the rough short of the putting surface. Then his wedge slid under the ball on his fourth shot, and the weak chip stopped 6 feet from the hole.

In just his second season on Tour, it was Bradley who played like the seasoned veteran. The old adage is to “take what the course gives you,” and the defending PGA Champion did just that. From the plugged lie in the sand he blasted away from the hole, getting the ball safely on the green and allowing the slope to bring it back around to a spot 15 feet from the cup. From there he gave it his best gunman’s gaze and then poured his putt into the heart of the hole, pumping his fist at the par save which kept him at 13-under.

Needing to make his putt to salvage a bogey and force a playoff, it was quickly clear that Furyk wasn’t comfortable with what he saw. Twice he backed off the putt, and when he finally stroked it the effort was ugly, wide right all the way and powered 5 feet past the hole. Furyk dropped his club in disgust the moment the ball left the putter’s face.

Fifty-one weeks after becoming a major champion, Keegan Bradley now adds a victory in one of the four World Golf Championship events with their elite international fields to his resume. The win also moves him to 4th place in the standings for the eight automatic spots on the U.S. Ryder Cup team that will play Team Europe this fall. This time the intense young man from New England won’t have to wait to see if he’s good enough to be a captain’s pick, because Keegan Bradley is no fluke.

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