Keegan Bradley made a start that, if not life-changing, was a major league confidence boost. In his second-career start on the PGA Tour, the rookie, who finished 14th on the Nationwide Tour money list last year, shot 66-67-68-66-70 to finish T7 at the Bob Hope Classic.
On the eve of the first round, Keegan said his goal was to stay relaxed and patient and have more fun — things that worked well for him in pro-am tournaments on the Nationwide Tour last year, where he shot a 61 at two different events. Apparently, he carried out the game plan like a veteran.
Playing in the third-to-last starting time on Sunday, a sizable gallery of at least 50 people followed the threesome of him, Kevin Na and Greg Chalmers. A group of guys who turned out to be friends with the standard bearer walked most of the round with them and took on the role as Keegan’s personal cheer squad.
“I don’t know who they were, but I like them,” said Keegan behind the 18th green after his round. “They were fun. It was great to have some guys cheering for me.”
In contention for the first time on the PGA Tour, Keegan, who is originally from Vermont but grew up in Hopkington, Massachusetts, kept his poise and composure. While he’s not overly expressive, you could still tell he was having the time of his life (even though Na plays so slow that he makes Ben Crane look like Speedy Gonzales).
“It’s a great feeling,” Keegan replied when asked his reaction to his finish. “It’s probably the most fun round I’ve ever played in my life, so it’s just a dream come true.
“(Coming down the stretch) I was a little bit nervous, but honestly I was really calm. Basically, last year I played for a month in the final groups every day. It shouldn’t be any different out here. I wish I could have shot a lower score, but I’m still happy with the way I played. It’s the first time I’ve been in this position out here.”
When the wind grabbed hold of a pulled tee shot on the par-3 No. 5, Keegan was forced to re-tee and posted a double-bogey. Yet, he recovered nicely with a birdie on the following hole, the par-5 No. 6. He bombed a drive at least 30 yards past his playing partners Na and Chalmers. While Keegan pulled out what was probably a 5-iron, Na, who hit driver off the deck, just watched, shaking his head in disbelief.
“(The double) was scary,” said the St. John’s University grad. “Just all of a sudden I’m over par for the day, which you can’t do out here or you’ll get lapped, but I stayed perfectly calm and my attitude was good. I actually made an unbelievable three on my second ball. I made three more birdies and no bogeys. I made one bad swing — it wasn’t even a bad swing, it just got caught up in the wind.”
I can attest to that. I showed up on the sixth tee and he didn’t look like a guy who had just posted a double-bogey.
Keegan’s second shot on No. 6 rolled just off the back of the green, but he nearly chipped in for eagle. He honed his short game skills when he was a kid, according to his dad Mark Bradley, the head pro at the Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club in the summers and a ski instructor in the winters in Wyoming.
“Aunt Pat (Bradley, LPGA Hall of Famer) said if she could do it over again, she’d spend two-thirds of the time on the short game and one-third on the swing,” explained Mark. “So she told (Keegan) that and he spent all his time chipping and putting. He used to try to hit flops when he shouldn’t, but I let him do it because he would learn on his own that it wasn’t the right shot.”
Keegan’s ballstriking is just as impressive if not more. Listed at 6’2,” 190 lbs, he doesn’t just bomb it — he also has great control (as far as I saw). All week spectators reacted to his drives with amazed murmurs, “Holy crap!” And I haven’t touched on his iron game yet, which was straight-up pure. From what I saw of his rounds, I can’t recall him missing a green. He just threw darts at the pins.
Oh, whaddayaknow, check out his stats for the Hope, Keegan was second in driving distance, averaging 309 yards off the tee. He also ranked second in greens in regulation, hitting 86.7% of them over five rounds.
Now if only more putts would have dropped. Obviously, he made a bunch of birdies, but I couldn’t even keep track of how many burned the edge or lipped out. That’s just how it goes sometimes.
“I was hitting really good putts,” said Keegan. “If those had gone in this week, I would have been up there in the lead, but that’s the way it is. It was frustrating, but I kept hitting good putts and they just weren’t going in, so there’s nothing I could do.”
The good news is Keegan will have plenty of more opportunities. With a top-ten finish early in the season, he’ll have even better status after the first reshuffle, which takes place after Mayakoba in Cancun at the end of February. (In other words, he’ll get a spot in just about every regular full-field Tour event.)
“I’m thrilled because everybody says you gotta play well on the West Coast,” said Keegan with a smile. “I’m so sick and tired of hearing that because I always want to play well, but I guess now it’s a little bit of relief. We’ll see if playing on the West Coast really helps you because this (finish) should really help me.”
Keegan was one of three rookies who finished in the top ten. As you may have heard, Jhonattan Vegas of Venezuela won in a three-way playoff. Chris Kirk, who was low rookie at the Sony Open, tied for 7th.
(Photo by Stephen Dunn/Getty Images)