Tour and News

Keegan Bradley reflects on his PGA win, his childhood and his struggle for respect

Photo: Kohjiro Kinno/SI

Bradley won the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.

In the master bedroom of Keegan Bradley's Jupiter Island, Fla., bachelor pad, a replica of the Wanamaker Trophy resides on a console beneath the TV. Shiny and robust, the cup is a magnificent reminder of Bradley's surprise win at the PGA Championship last August, but it's not the most compelling artifact in the room.

Next to the trophy is a framed 4x6-inch snapshot of the cramped trailer Bradley inhabited with his father, Mark, the summer before Keegan's senior year in high school. Money was tight then. So was space; Keegan slept on the kitchen table. Bradley, now 26, actually recalls those days with great fondness -- "one of the most fun times of my life," he says -- but the photo is still a powerful symbol of his unlikely path to PGA Tour stardom.

A Vermont-born, Howard Stern-loving ski nut who bunked in a trailer park and attended college in Queens, New York? You won't find another player on Tour who checks all those boxes. "People say I came out of nowhere, but I've played very consistent golf my whole career," Bradley says. "I've just been kind of overlooked." In high school. In college. On the mini-tours. Hell, two months after winning a major, Bradley was left off the U.S. Presidents Cup team. On a sun-splashed afternoon at his waterside home, Bradley opened up about his endless struggle for the spotlight, his bond with Phil Mickelson, and the congratulatory text message that was "the highlight of my life."

It's surprising that more hasn't been written about your stint in a trailer. Not many major champions have that life experience.
My mom gets very sad when I talk about it, because she thinks it makes it sound like I had a bad childhood. So for a while I stopped talking about it. But really I had an unbelievable childhood. And I'm actually, in a weird way, proud of those days. I try to tell her, "Mom, it's a cool story. The story of me growing up in Vermont and skiing, people don't care about that. It's the trailer park that people want to hear about."

So let's hear about it.
We were living in a small, normal house in Woodstock, Vt. -- nothing extravagant. Then my parents separated and I ended up moving to Hopkinton, Mass., to live with my dad [a club professional]. He lived in a trailer at the time, in Crystal Springs Trailer Park. It was like something out of a movie. My dad is 6' 4", he's taller than me, and we were living in this trailer with bunk beds. He slept in the bottom bunk. I slept on the kitchen table -- the table folded down and had cushions; that was my bed. We had communal showers and bathrooms; I wouldn't be able to do that now. [Laughs] I remember one night the A.C. wasn't working and it was so hot that I slept in my car. But I never remember it being terrible. I remember loving it.

What's the oddest thing you witnessed there?
Me and my dad would sit out every night on chairs and just talk about stuff. One time we were sitting there and there's all this commotion. We look around and there's a tractor driving down the road with a trailer on the back carrying a Santa Claus. It's July, and people are going berserk; it's full-out chaos. We finally ask a guy, "What's going on?" And he goes, "It's National Trailer Park Christmas." My dad and I were just looking at each other laughing.

You moved out of the trailer later that year. Did your living arrangements improve?
We lived in a one-bedroom apartment. I slept on a pullout couch and we had no phone. There was a pay phone down the street that I found out the number to, and I'd have my buddies call it. In the winter, the heat wouldn't come on high enough, so we had to rely on a [wood-burning stove] for heat. But I hate to talk about it like it was a terrible time in my life, because honestly, it was awesome. I think it was an important time for me, because now that I've got all this [he looks around his spacious living room] -- it's like, "Oh, my God."

Life is good, in part, because of your PGA win. You probably know you're one of just three players to win in their first major start. Can you name the other two?
Yeah, [Francis] Ouimet and Todd Hamilton -- or was it Ben Curtis?

Right, Curtis. Was enough attention paid to what you accomplished?
Probably not. A lot of people thought I was going to be gone after that PGA and never heard from again. And little did people know that Jason Dufner would go on to be one of the best players in the world. Maybe if I'd done it against Tiger or Phil or another big name, it would have been something bigger. But I don't need the praise. I have the trophy in my bedroom, and that's all that matters. They can't take it away from me.

It seems like you've battled for respect at every stage of your career.
Growing up in Vermont, no matter what I did I didn't get much recognition. And then going to St. John's [in Queens, New York] and playing great and winning a bunch of tournaments, I still didn't get much recognition. It's my thing -- nobody thinks I can succeed, I've got a chip on my shoulder, I'm always trying to prove myself.

Back to the PGA. You were cruising along until you made a triple-bogey at the 15th on Sunday to fall five strokes back. What was your mindset at that point?
When I made triple, I remember walking off the green and literally feeling like my knees were going to collapse. I felt sick almost, like, I can't believe this happened. What people forget was the week before I had a chance to win the WGC [Bridgestone Invitational] and I shot 41 on the back nine on Sunday, and totally lost it like I've never lost it before. I could not play. At the PGA, it was almost like a here-we-go-again type thing.

You went on to birdie two of the next three holes, which got you into a playoff with Dufner. How did you regain your composure after the triple?
I told myself walking to the 16th tee that I wasn't going to let the 15th hole define me, because I had played too well to allow that to happen. Camilo [Villegas] actually sent me a text Saturday night that said, "There's going to be something in this round that's going to test you. It's the players that can bounce back from that that are champions." I remembered that text, and as I was walking to the next tee, I said, "I'm going to hit the best drive of my life here. I'm not going to think about anything else." And I hit a drive that is the purest shot I've ever hit -- about 30 yards past where I'd been hitting it all week -- and that set up everything.

That was your second win of the year, yet a few weeks later Fred Couples left you off his Presidents Cup team. Did that eat at you?
It hurt a lot. I really wanted to be on that team. There's such a bond that you can see among those players. I look at my buddy Webb [Simpson], and I can just tell that by playing on that team he's connected with these guys a little more. At the same time, they won the Presidents Cup. Freddie picked the right team. I don't hold it against him, and I truly mean that, I'm not just saying that. I realize Tiger Woods is Tiger Woods; he's intimidating. And then Bill Haas won the FedEx Cup. Everything went wrong for me not to get picked. There was only a 1 percent chance of me not getting picked and everything happened in order for that to happen.

Haas went 1-3-1 that week. That had to make sitting home even harder to swallow.
I'd love to be bitter at Bill Haas. He got me in the Presidents Cup. He got me in the Riviera playoff [at the Northern Trust Open in February]. But he's such a good guy and such a good player that's it's very difficult for me to even look at him like that. He played his way on to that team.

Presumably earning a place on the Ryder Cup team is a primary goal for you this year?
A lot of the veterans have told me that the Ryder Cup shouldn't be your main goal for the year, but it's hard for me to sit here and tell you that. My main goal is to win tournaments and play well in majors, but I want to be on this Ryder Cup team very badly. I love team environments, like the Celtics, the Bruins. I love going into the locker room and meeting these guys.

After the PGA, you received a congratulatory text from Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. That was a shocker, right?
I remember getting the text and looking around at my buddies and saying, "If you're messing with me here -- if this is one of you guys, I'm going to kill you. Really, I'm going to lose it." It turned out to be him, and it was just such a cool thing because here I was, a kid from Vermont, I grew up admiring this guy as if he were a superhuman and he's texting me to tell me how he admired me and how I handled myself down the stretch. It was the highlight of my life.

 

Around that time, another of your idols, Howard Stern, invited you on his radio show.
Well, I wasn't exactly on the show. I got interviewed by the Howard 100 News. People look at me weird because I'm a Howard Stern fan, but he's very misunderstood. It's the first thing I do when I get in my car at a tournament -- just pray that I get Howard 100 on Sirius or XM.

 

Joey Diovisalvi, your trainer, told Sports Illustrated earlier this year that you told him, "Every time I think about the fact that I'm not No. 1 in the world, I want to tear my head off." Did you really say that?
I don't know if those were the exact words, but I really think I can win a lot and be a great player on the PGA Tour. I feel like my fitness is something that's holding me back, and if I can improve that, I can make a run at being one of the better players on Tour. I really am driven to be No. 1 in the world. It drives me crazy when I see other players winning [more than me], because I want it so bad. It doesn't mean I'm not happy for them, but it drives me to work harder. I want it so much.

Have you always been that way?
Yeah, I've always been like that. Watching other people do well -- it drives me, especially the people who are my own age like [Rory] McIlroy and Rickie [Fowler]. It's great for the game, and it's great for me personally because I want to be out there with those guys winning tournaments.

You were a competitive junior skier in Vermont. When did you realize you wanted to pursue golf over skiing?
I was 12 or so. The thing about skiing is that race days are always the worst, because they're so intense. You train all week, all year, for a 30-second run, then you hook a tip on the first gate and you're done. I remember one day at Killington [a mountain in Vermont], we're up there and we're all freaking out; it's so nerve-racking. It's raining, it's cold, it's miserable. The course is in terrible shape, full of ruts because the weather is so bad. And I just said to myself, "I don't know why I'm here. I want to be playing golf." That's when I decided.

Golf isn't always easy. There's a story about you almost going broke on the Hooters Tour.
Yeah, it was during the Winter Series. I was actually playing very well in terms of making money; I don't know how other guys do it. At Houston, I was down to $1,200 in my bank account and Q-School money was due that week. I was freaking out, which I do a lot. So I called my buddy, Dr. Glenn Muraca, who I'd met at St. John's at a golf course we played at, Wheatley Hills. I called him, I said, "Listen I have $1,200 in my bank account and I can't afford to pay for Q-School." He said, "All right, I'm going to wire you the money." It was like, oh my God, this is the most unbelievable thing. The entry fee was $4,500; he wired me six grand. I think about it now -- it might as well have been $100 million, because it was priceless. That week, I went on to win, and I won $35,000. From then on, it was a very steady increase; I began to win more and compete and I got through Tour school easily, got a Nationwide Tour exemption, and now we're sitting here. That moment changed things.

You've become friendly with Phil Mickelson and partake in his practice-round money matches. What's the most he's taken off you?
People love to hear about that, but it's so much more than that. When we play against him in those matches, the whole time he's telling us "Okay, the pin's going to be here, hit it here, do this, aim at that tree." So it's a weird dynamic -- he obviously wants to kick my ass, but in the next second, he's telling me what to do on a certain hole at, say, Augusta or at Akron, where he helped me out a lot. That's what makes it cool.

But when he wins, does he make you buck up?
Oh, yeah. Which is the way we all want it.

There's a perception that Mickelson can be aloof or detached in the locker room, especially around the younger guys. In your experience, that doesn't sound it's like the case.
That's so far from the truth. I feel bad, because on the one hand Phil's beloved and on the other hand there are these crazy rumors and stories about him that are so ridiculous. He's been nothing but helpful and approachable to me and to other players that I know of. It's terrible that people think that, because it's just so not the case.

Does knowing Phil help alleviate the pressure when you face him in a competitive situation, like in the playoff at Riviera this year with you, him and Bill Haas?
I think it's helped me with every player because Phil is Phil Mickelson. I played with Tiger at the Players this year for the first time and I felt totally fine, and I think that's from playing all those times with Phil.

After that Sunday at Riviera, you were criticized for your frequent spitting. Is that something you even realized you were doing?
I've always done it. I've been spitting my whole life. Off the golf course, walking down the street, I'm spitting. My mom would yell at me about this my whole life. I wasn't aware of it happening on the course, but in a weird way I'm happy that it happened because I was able to totally stop it. People were legitimately very upset about it, which was tough to take.

Jack Nicklaus said the first time he saw himself smoking on TV, he was repulsed by it, and quit smoking during play on the spot.
That's what happened to me. The first thing I had to do was stop spitting off the golf course, which sounds silly. It was a very serious thing, part of my whole routine, but I was able to stop.

After the PGA win, you spent a few days hauling the Wanamaker around Jupiter and letting people touch it. What's the weirdest thing someone asked to do with it?
The weirdest thing was just looking at the expressions on people's faces. They were looking at it like it was a ghost. Even some of my friends who are superstars would look at it and just be freakin' out, like, Oh my God, I can't believe that's the Wanamaker. It reminded me of what I'd done.

Which superstars?
When Camilo walked in and looked at the Wanamaker, I don't know if "proud" is the word, but I remember how happy he was. It took me by surprise how amazed he was by it.

What about you? Are you still in awe of it?
It's funny, I'll just be lying in bed and it'll hit me: I won the PGA. I won a major. And I'll start laughing to myself. It's a weird thing because after a while you become immune to it, and then I'll walk into my room, look at it and it hits me -- that's the Wanamaker Trophy. That's amazing.


 

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