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But Bradley saw an incomplete athlete. In March he endeavored to fix that. He walked into the Jupiter, Fla., office of golf biomechanics coach Joey Diovisalvi and told him that while he rated himself a 9 or a 10 in golf, he was a 0 in strength and conditioning. Diovisalvi recalls Bradley's telling him something else: "Every time I think about the fact that I'm not Number 1 in the world, I want to tear my head off."
When Bradley arrived at the Nelson last year, he didn't even stay at the Four Seasons, which towers over the 18th hole of the TPC. The rookie bunked at a Hampton Inn. Sure, he had tied for seventh at the Hope and for ninth at the Valero Texas Open, but he had also missed the cut in six of his first 15 starts. He was already grinding to keep his Tour card. Bradley remembers standing along the rope line at the Nelson and signing autographs for fans who would then ask, "Who are you?"
This year his picture adorned the cover of the tournament program, and he's mentioned on a short list of the best U.S. players. Keegs, 25, is a good bet to join Dufner on the Ryder Cup team. (Look for Kooch, Rickie and Bubba to make it as well.) A distant 203rd in the 2011 World Ranking heading into the Nelson, Bradley is now the 23rd-ranked player on the planet. And he would make an admirable defense of his Nelson title, flirting with the lead on the weekend before finishing 24th, nine shots behind Dufner.
That Bradley was even in the field last year was an upset. "I was going to play Colonial and skip this tournament," he says. "It was done. I had made my decision. My caddie [Steve (Pepsi) Hale] said, 'I think you should play the Nelson and skip Colonial; the Nelson [course] fits your game better.' He had never said anything like that to me in my career. Thank God he persuaded me to do it."
Playing the TPC for the first time, Bradley battled through the wind, taking down Texan Ryan Palmer on the first hole of a sudden-death playoff.
Bradley failed to qualify for the U.S. Open or the British Open, but his victory got him a spot in the steamy PGA Championship. Playing in his first major he shared the 36-hole lead after a second-round 64 and was a shot back heading into Sunday. He tripled the 15th hole to fall five back, but found the resolve to grind out two birdies and a par and catch Dufner. Then Keegs promptly won the three-hole playoff.
Those close to him say that the resolve was already there. "It's been pretty crazy to see what a win like [the Nelson] can do for your career," says Jon Curran, Bradley's friend and teammate on the Hopkinton (Mass.) High golf team and a mini-tour player. "What happened in a three-month period is insane. For some people, usually something that quick doesn't last, but he hasn't become complacent. He's still going in the right direction."
Bradley finished in the top 25 in his first four starts of 2012 and in February provided one of the indelible images of the season: answering Phil Mickelson's birdie on the 72nd hole at the Northern Trust Open with one of his own to get into a playoff with Mickelson and eventual winner Bill Haas.
Bradley played inspired golf at Riviera but also with a heavy heart. The tournament over, he boarded a red-eye to Boston to serve as a pallbearer the next day at the funeral of Curran's father, Peter, who died of melanoma.
If you don't get tripped up by Bradley's politeness and smile, you can see the embers of a fiery, hypercompetitive New Englander smoldering below the surface. Bradley was born in Woodstock, Vt., and he was fitted with skis almost as early as he was diapers. He moved to Hopkinton for his senior year of high school, and he and Curran became fast friends, passionate about golf and all things New England.