One minute on Sunday, Michael Bradley was on the leading edge of the sharpest competition in years at the Doral-Ryder Open. The next he was in the middle of a nightmare.
Bradley, an intriguing mix of talent and tenuousness, was leading John Huston and Billy Mayfair by a stroke at the windswept and scary Blue Monster at Miami's Doral Golf Resort & Spa when he lipped out a birdie putt on the 11th hole. After marking and replacing his ball 10 inches from the cup, Bradley took his normal two practice swings, addressed the ball and made his stroke. The dimpled devil dived deep into the left side of the hole, did a snappy 180-degree turn and spun out, stopping defiantly at the front door.
In that instant, Bradley's left leg buckled. He quickly made an unsteady step forward and nudged in his bogey putt as his rosy face turned sickly white. "I can't explain it," he would say later, unwilling to relive the moment. "I still don't really know what happened."
What happened was that Bradley had paid a visit to pro golf hell. The fact is that point-blank muffs like Bradley's happen every week on Tour, but the players rarely talk about them. They might joke about a shank or a chili dip, but they don't find anything funny about tap-ins that don't drop. Why? Because they know the ugly truth: At nerve-racking moments, any putt is missable. It's this evil knowledge that all pros fight to forget, but never can.
Dazed, disoriented and disbelieving, Bradley struggled to regroup on the 12th tee. His prospects were not good. Not only was he tied with two players who had already won this year, but his tendency to fade when in contention also seemed to have shifted into overdrive. Worse, he was about to play the meanest holes on an unforgiving course.
On such make-or-break moments do careers turn, and in the space of the next hour, Bradley might have pushed his in a new and positive direction. First, he made what he later admitted was a terrifying two-footer for par at the 12th to wipe clean his short-term memory of the miss at 11. Then, following a superb eight-iron from a fairway bunker, he holed a 10-footer for birdie on the par-4 16th to regain the lead after both Huston and Mayfair, playing ahead, had missed short putts of their own, though they were snakes compared to Bradley's piddler. Finally, Bradley came to the most dangerous and time-honored test on the course, the 443-yard 18th, playing into the wind and over water. He threaded a full-blooded drive down the pike, blocked a six-iron away from the water guarding the left side of the green, then ran a delicate 50-foot chip five feet past the pin. Facing the kind of putt tournament closers thrive on, Bradley smoothly stroked his ball into the hole to win by one.
"Michael reached down and regrouped," says Bob Rotella, the sports psychologist who has worked with Bradley. "He understood the challenge is not about never missing a short putt. It's about not falling apart when you do. It's about not deciding that you are going to miss every putt, or that you have forgotten how to make a short putt. Winning is about handling mistakes, and Michael handled a very big one very well."
The victory removed all traces of callowness from Bradley, whose only previous victory in six seasons on Tour came at the 1996 Buick Challenge, which was rain-shortened to 36 holes. As a test of shot-making, Doral is on the first rung of the Tour's regular events, as the quality of its past champions—among them, Nick Faldo, Raymond Floyd, Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Lee Trevino—attests. Bradley's 72-hole total of 10-under-par 278 was the highest winning score on the Blue Monster since 1985, restoring its stature as one of the fiercest tracks on Tour.
As the kickoff to the four-tournament Florida swing leading toward the Masters, Doral used to enjoy unchallenged status as the first really big event of the year, but that's changing. The impressive increases in the purses of the West Coast tournaments—five of the seven full-field events offered at least $2.1 million this year—made Doral's $2 million prize seem ordinary. Phil Mickelson said that was one of the reasons he passed on Doral this year.
There was also a backlash to the penal changes Floyd made to the Blue Monster last year. Prompted by the 23-under and 19-under scores shot by Norman in 1993 and '96, respectively, Floyd added 200 yards, put in 18 new bunkers and enlarged several others, drastically narrowing the driving areas. After Steve Elkington won in 1997 at 13-under, several players privately expressed dissatisfaction with the renovations, and this year eight of the top 20 on the World Ranking were missing, including, in addition to Mickelson, Doral regulars Ernie Els and Fred Couples. Two other hot golfers, John Daly and Tom Watson, also took the week off.