Keegan Bradley hit several clutch shots in the final round at Firestone, where he eventually won by one stroke.
Sam Greenwood / Getty Images
By Gary Van Sickle
Monday, August 06, 2012

AKRON, Ohio -- It should be obvious by now that Fred Couples made a mistake a year ago.

A mistake about Keegan Bradley.

Bradley? That's right, Fred. Damn straight you wanted him on your Presidents Cup team. The kid, if a 26-year-old still counts as being a kid, won two tournaments last year. Both in playoffs with clutch putts. One was a major championship, the PGA. And you left him off the team, Captain Fred? What were you thinking?

All right, Bradley's 2012 season hadn't been quite as stellar. No wins, a couple of close calls -- a couple of tournaments Bradley thought he should've won. But remember Riviera back in February? Phil Mickelson made a putt to get into a playoff with Bill Haas. Then Bradley made a sizable putt on top of him to get in the playoff, too. That was gutsy.

Sunday, Bradley did it again. He faced a 15-foot par putt on the final green here at Firestone Country Club that would guarantee him, at worst, a playoff with Jim Furyk. Bradley poured it in. It was like watching Kobe Bryant take a shot at the buzzer and knowing all along he was going to make it.

Bradley just stole the World Golf Championship's Bridgestone Invitational from Furyk the way Ernie Els snatched the claret jug from Adam Scott at the British Open. This was more dramatic, though. Els had no idea his final putt would be to win, or even to get in a playoff. But Bradley knew he had to make his. It was all or nothing. He made it, and this is the cool part about him, he knew he was going to make it. He said he never had a thought about not making it.

"I just kept telling myself that this is the exact moment that I live for," Bradley said later. "It's just an amazing feeling to be in that moment and loving every second of it."

If his closing 64 at Firestone wasn't impressive enough -- it tied Steve Stricker for lowest final-round score -- that last pressure-packed par putt certainly was.

Bradley has guts. He has power. And don't be fooled by that unwieldy belly putter, the guy can putt. He's won three tournaments, two of them big ones, in two years on Tour. He is exactly the type of player that Ryder Cup captain Davis Love should be looking for, a guy who wants the ball for the last shot. He is what Couples should have been looking for last year, too.

Love won't repeat Fred's mistake. In fact, Love may not even have the chance, because Bradley will probably make the Ryder Cup team on points. The Bridgestone win moved him up to fourth on the points list, and the top eight qualify automatically. Should Bradley slip out of the top eight, though, it's inconceivable that Love would pass him up. Bradley has never played on a Ryder Cup team or a Presidents Cup team, but it's clear that he lives and breathes for those kinds of competitions the way that Seve Ballesteros and Bernhard Langer and Paul Azinger and other recent memorable Ryder Cuppers did.

"I try not to let people know how much it means to me, but I think about it every second," Bradley said. Laughing, he added, "I probably shouldn't even be saying that. But I just want to be on that team so badly. I was so close last year, and it would mean so much to be on that team. I hope this is enough to get me there."

This is hardly a news flash, but we've mostly been hearing about how Rickie Fowler, Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy are the next big things in golf. Well, Fowler just got his first win in May. Johnson hasn't won a major yet, but he's kicked away a couple of great chances. McIlroy has won the same number of majors as Bradley.

There's an indefinable "it" in golf, that ability to almost will the ball into the hole. Fowler showed that with his clutch four-birdie finish in his singles match at the 2010 Ryder Cup. Bradley has shown it every time he's had a chance to win, including his come-from-behind playoff win at last year's Byron Nelson Championship. If Bill Haas hadn't drained a 40-foot ocean liner of a putt in the playoff at the Northern Trust Open in February, Bradley might have won in Los Angeles this year, too.

The reason behind Bradley's mediocre-until-now summer was probably the Ryder Cup. Bradley wants it too much. This week, he was able to let go and just play. That live-in-the-moment stuff? He might've been born with it. Maybe it's genetic.

"When I was a little kid playing matches against other guys, I used to love coming down to the last hole having to make a birdie," Bradley said. "I'm still just a little kid out there playing. I love it. To be at Firestone, playing against Jim Furyk, I was just reveling in it. I'm so lucky that I love it because it's a weird feeling out there, and I seem to thrive on it a little bit.

"Two or three years ago, I was in Hawkinsville, Ga., grinding it out on the Hooters Tour. This is sweeter because of the caliber of player Jim is. He's been so great to me. I really look up to the guy. To come down the stretch with Jim Furyk, battling -- you dream about that. It's just an amazing experience."

 

For a while it didn't appear that anyone would battle Furyk down the stretch. Not after the third-round leader raced out of the gate with birdies on the first three holes. Bradley got hot, though, with his iron play and his putter. He holed a 40-foot bomb at the seventh. A crucial 14-footer to save par at the ninth. A 23-footer at the 10th. A seven-footer at the 11th. A curling nine-footer at the 14th. An 11-footer at the 16th. Ten holes, five birdies.

It all came down to the 18th hole, with Bradley trailing Furyk by a shot. Bradley split the fairway, and then Furyk repeated a swing from his ill-fated U.S. Open finish at Olympic Club. He pulled it left into the trees. Uh-oh. Furyk got a break, though. It caromed out and dribbled into the fairway. He had a shot. Then Furyk pushed his approach shot into the right bunker, where it bounced out and just into the thick, scraggly rough. Advantage Bradley. Except he was on such an adrenaline rush that he pounded a 9-iron from 165 yards and it didn't draw. It plugged in that same bunker. Advantage Furyk.

It was a delicate pitch, but Furyk fluffed it slightly. It barely cleared the bunker and stuck in the greenside rough. Advantage, anyone? No, this thing just turned into a pillow fight.

Bradley couldn't aim at the flag with his splash-out and he smartly played it to the left, where it caught a ridge and drifted around to the right, stopping 15 feet above the hole. "A spectacular shot," Bradley said later. Furyk gouged his second chip just onto the green, where it trickled slightly but still stopped five feet short.

You know the rest. Bradley poured in his par putt. Furyk had a minor explosion, pounding his putt six feet past on the right with a stroke that never had a chance.

There were a few things we learned Sunday. It's never over until that last putt drops. Even Jim Furyk, a former U.S. Open winner who is considered a strong closer, can make double from the fairway on the 18th hole with the title on the line. Furyk is 42 and has failed to finish well in a couple of big tournaments. Does that make him more or less attractive as a potential wild-card selection for the Ryder Cup? That's for Love to ponder.

We learned that Tiger Woods is still out there somewhere, lurking on the edge of being consistently competitive again. Tiger closed with a no-bogey 66 that could've easily been 61 or 62 if he'd made some makeable putts. That's easy to say, but recent history says that this is how Tiger putts now, at least until further notice. Woods said he was excited because over the weekend he stroked his putts on the lines he wanted, which was something he hadn't done earlier in the week. He had to find something positive out of the week, and that's what he came up with.

We also learned that Bradley has game and attitude and passion. And common sense. Asked if winning this WGC title made trying to defend his PGA Championship title this week at the Ocean Course a little more difficult, Bradley agreed that it probably does, and that his record the week after he wins isn't great. But he's also learned something about handling success and the expectations that come with it.

The PGA is going to be even harder now? That's just what Bradley wants to hear. "I look forward to the challenge," he said. He was smiling. And really, why not?

(Editor's Note: An earlier version of this story said Bradley moved up to eighth in Ryder Cup point with his win at Firestone. Bradley actually moved up to fourth.)

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