When Keegan Bradley walked up to the third green at Firestone, he was thrilled to see the 11-foot putt he had for birdie. And he was even more excited after he made it — not just because he was off to a great start in the second round of the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, but he also couldn’t wait to thank Phil Mickelson.
Keegan, along with fellow rookie Brendan Steele, played against Phil and Jeff Overton in Phil’s weekly practice round match on Wednesday. On the third hole, Phil called Keegan over and gave him a helpful tip.
“Phil said, come over here and hit this putt,” said Keegan, 25, who has a share of the lead at eight-under at the halfway point. “This putt breaks left and it looks like it breaks right. And sure enough, I had this exact putt that he brought me over to. And I said to Pepsi (my caddie), this is the putt that Phil says goes left, and I putted it left and it went in dead center. It looks like it goes to the right.
“That was pretty cool. I wanted to make it so bad so I could go back and tell him later tonight.”
Keegan is competing in his first World Golf Championship event, but he sure isn’t playing like a rookie. He rolled in four birdies on the front nine to post 31, followed by eight straight pars before capping off the bogey-free round with a birdie to fire a five-under 65.
“Phil’s always there to help,” said Keegan, who calls Lefty one of his ‘idols.’ “I played with him in a practice round at The Players and he gave me his phone number and said text me anytime.”
Mickelson has taken a number of the young guns under his wing, including Keegan (the two share the same management company, Gaylord), who credits some advice Phil imparted to him at The Players in helping him capture his first-career professional win two weeks later at the HP Byron Nelson Championship in May.
As a rookie, Keegan had a lot of late tee times and had some adjusting because he wasn’t used to it.
“Phil told me to get into a routine of getting to the course early, instead of laying around in your hotel room and getting lethargic and getting to the course early to chip and putt and getting in the atmosphere,”he said. “Phil said, if you’re playing a match with your buddies and they said we have a 2pm tee time, you wouldn’t get there at 1pm, you’d get there at 10am, practice a little bit and then play.
“I did that at the Nelson and today actually — it worked. He seems to know what he’s doing.”
During the friendly match on Wednesday, he asked Phil for help on the 8th, a blind tee shot (you can’t see the fairway — at least the part you want to hit).
“If you go left, you have a straight-up angle into the green,” said Phil. “But if you go right, you’re behind the trees in the rough and you’re having to cut one.”
Overton chimed in, saying, “Sometimes if it’s firm, going left will roll through the fairway.”
“Maybe because I’m left-handed, I’m coming out of it,” said Phil. “I’ve never gone through the fairway into the trees left, I always have an angle.”
When the group had first arrived at the 8th tee, Mickelson poked some fun at his knack for hitting errant drives and crazy shots from trouble. “Personally, I like the right rough because then I can slice it around the trees on the next shot,” he quipped, with a goofy grin, “Maybe that’s just me.”
Phil pointed at a light-colored tree in the distance on the left side of the fairway for Keegan to use as a target. Sure enough, he bombed his drive down the same line as Phil, but about 15-20 yards past him.
“There’s a bunch of blind tee shots he helped me out with,” Keegan told me on Wednesday. “He gave me some trees to look at and telephone poles. There are lots of blind shots, you can’t see any of the fairways.”
The difference is, Phil is known to spray his drives and Keegan hits it straight (and longer)!
(In case anyone is wondering who won the match on Wednesday, they halved it. Overton was Phil’s hero again — like he was at the Open Championship. Phil/Overton were one-down going into 18 after the rookies birdied 16. Overton banged in a 10 footer for birdie to win the hole and halve the match. Phil was so happy that he practically jumped on Overton when he hugged him.)
Naturally, there’s quite a bit of trash-talking during the friendly matches. “For a player like me to have Phil kind of in your ear is fun, anyway,” said Keegan, smiling.
“But coming down the last couple holes, it gets a little quiet, and he’s starting to call Bones over, take a look at this putt. He doesn’t want to lose to us, that’s for sure, just like we’d like to beat him so we can tell all our buddies. All in all, he’s there to help, and just a super nice guy.”
Keegan, who grew up ski-racing in the winters and golfing in the summers in Woodstock, Vermont, and Hopkington, Massachusetts, respectively, hasn’t made any costly mistakes.
“I didn’t hit a bad shot today,” he said. “Well, on the 9th I pull hooked it into the 10th fairway. That was the only real bad shot I hit, but it worked out fine..I got down there and it’s in the 10th fairway. It’s just the type of thing that happens. If it’s four feet to the right, I’m in the rough, going to at least maybe bogey, so I got lucky on that one bad shot.
“I’m hitting a lot of fairways and in good, safe places.”
He hit nine out of 14 on Friday, missed only three greens and needed 28 putts, and finds himself atop the leaderboard along with Ryan Moore, Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott.
“Today was one of the more fun days of my career for sure,” said Keegan, with a huge grin. “It was really fun to be out there on the leaderboard.
“It’s something I’ve dreamed about since I was two years old. It’s kind of happening in front of my eyes, which is a weird feeling to describe. But it’s spectacular. I just can’t express how much fun I’m having out there.”
I’m wondering if he’s texted Mickelson to thank him, but knowing Keegan, he’s probably holding off, considering Phil didn’t have the best day, posting a three-over 73.
Oh, and maybe Keegan should set up practice matches with Phil more often.
“The last time I played with him at The Players, I won the next week,” said Keegan, grinning. “So maybe it’s a good omen for all of us.”
(AP Photo/Mark Duncan)