The winner of the 93rd PGA Championship and unlikely savior of American golf is a skinny, freckled kid from Vermont with a long putter, a Hall of Fame aunt, a degree from not a golf powerhouse St. John's, no girlfriend and, most important, no fear. Keegan Bradley, 25 and playing in his first major, won this PGA with perfect golf in a three-hole playoff against another up-and-coming American ball-basher, Jason Dufner. But it was Bradley's wild finish in regulation that demonstrated an uncommon fortitude and portends a very bright future.
Two shots out of the lead playing the brutal 259-yard, par-3 15th at Atlanta Athletic Club, Bradley pulled his tee ball, and it settled into a nasty lie in the grabby bermuda rough. An overaggressive chip trickled across the green and into a water hazard. The triple bogey left him five shots off the lead with three holes to play. Game over, right?
"Bradleys don't quit," says Keegan's aunt Pat, the 60-year-old LPGA Hall of Famer who won six major championships. "If he learned anything watching me, it's that you never stop grinding, you fight for every stroke."
Many players called the four-hole finishing stretch at AAC the toughest they'd ever faced, and all Bradley did was finish birdie, birdie, par, emoting all the way. Dufner's three straight bogeys beginning on 15 necessitated the playoff, and given new life the buoyant Bradley simply refused to lose.
The mad scramble that began with the triple bogey is the kind of high jinks popularized by Bradley's mentor and frequent practice-round foil, Phil Mickelson. But with Phil the Thrill showing the early onset of the yips and Tiger Woods looking evermore lost, American golf has been in the doldrums, allowing a new generation of international players (and golden oldie Northern Irishman Darren Clarke) to win the previous six major championships and dominate the top of the World Ranking. Bradley's starmaking performance has suddenly changed the landscape as he has positioned himself to be the American Rory McIlroy, a youngster with not only a ton of game but also a winning personality.
"There are three things I like about Keegan," Mickelson says. "One, he's enjoyable to be around. He's a fun guy, he's smart, he treats people well—a quality person. Two, he has so much talent. He hits it long, he has a lot of shots, he has a nice touch. Three, he doesn't back down. Ever. His attitude is, Bring it on. You take that fearlessness and all that talent, and he's going to do big things in this game. And because of the kind of person he is, the fans are going to respond to him."
Bradley's ascension is all the more enjoyable because he has never been a can't-miss kid. Growing up in Woodstock, Vt., his first love, skiing, was stoked by his father, Mark, and mother, Kaye, who were active in the competitive skiing community. Keegan had his first pair of boots at 18 months and competed in his first race at age six. By his early teens he was being groomed for the U.S. national team in slalom, giant slalom and Super G. Kaye is not prone to hyperbole, but she says, "He was very, very good technically. I think he had the talent to make it to the Olympics, if that had been his dream."
When the snow melted, Mark worked as an accredited PGA professional, and he imbued in his son the bedrock fundamentals of a powerful, repeatable swing. At 14, Keegan decided to dedicate himself solely to golf, but he still benefits from his skiing background. "Skiing and golf have a lot of similarities in terms of they're very mental," he says. "You're in that starting gate all by yourself with that scary course in front of you. It is kind of similar to standing on that 18th tee with maybe a one-shot lead. Actually, skiing is a little more intense. This is easy compared to that."
Lightly recruited out of high school, Bradley matriculated to St. John's, enticed by the chance to practice at such celebrated courses as Bethpage, Shinnecock Hills and Friar's Head.
After winning nine college tournaments and graduating with a degree in sports management, Bradley apprenticed in golf's minor leagues, where there are many elegant swings and just as many fidgety putting strokes. Last year on the Nationwide tour, he mastered the belly putter, which is anathema to traditionalists but helped Bradley unlock his vast potential. By virtue of his 14th-place finish on the money list, he played his way onto the PGA Tour this season and was already looking like the rookie of the year after his playoff victory at the Byron Nelson Championship in May.