A word to the wise: If you're meeting Keegan Bradley for dinner, don't have a late lunch. At last week's Hyundai Tournament of Champions, Bradley agreed to break bread but insisted on meeting at 6 p.m. because, in his words, he didn't "want to be out late." Then he reconsidered and bumped up the meal to 5:30.
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For all of his boyish enthusiasm, Bradley, 26, has carried the nickname Grandpa since he was an early-to-bed undergrad at St. John's. The season opener in Maui is a laid-back working vacation for many players, but Bradley stuck tenaciously to his killjoy routine. He flew in on New Year's Eve but was in bed by 9:30. The next day was, he says, "literally my perfect day." He got up early and played a practice round. Alone. Then he worked on his game for a couple of hours, continuing a new emphasis on upgrading his wedge play. After that he hit the gym; twice-a-day workouts in the off-season have packed 10 pounds of muscle onto Bradley's onetime lanky 6' 3" frame. He then killed the rest of the afternoon watching episodes of Breaking Bad followed by his favorite dinner: room service. He was in bed again before 10. He maintained this kind of focus throughout his stay on Maui.
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"I can't come here and fish or go to the beach like these other guys," says Bradley, a bachelor who was traveling by himself last week. "That's ridiculous to me. It makes me the player I am, but it also makes me crazy. It's exhausting. I mean, I don't want to sound like a psychopath. My off-weeks, when I'm with my boys, I have a good time. But when I'm at a tournament, I'm there to do everything I can to win it. I don't have any fun finishing 30th or 20th or 10th. I really don't. I get my joy in life from playing well."
Bradley has always thrived on being an outsider, and he arrived on Tour in 2011 with a chip on his shoulder the size of Vermont, his home state. But he immediately proved he belonged in the big leagues, winning twice as a rookie, including the PGA Championship in his first start in a major on the strength of some outrageously gutsy play on the closing holes.
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Last year Bradley backed it all up with another big-time victory, at the Bridgestone Invitational, and a starring role at the Ryder Cup. While forging a 3–0 record in partner play, he became the face of the U.S. team with his bug-eyed, fist-pumping intensity. You might think that after such a smashing start to his career, Bradley would want to relax and enjoy the ride a little bit more, but he remains driven by an almost unhealthy fear of failure, which he inherited from his hyperfocused aunt, Pat Bradley, the LPGA Hall of Famer. "Whenever I go to a tournament I feel underprepared, even though I've worked as hard as possible," Keegan says. "I always feel I have something to prove. I always feel like an underdog. If I ever lose that, I'm in trouble."
Bradley keeps in touch with his roots with the help of what he calls "my degenerate friends." His expansive bachelor pad in Jupiter, Fla., features eight TVs plus a home theater and a tiki bar in the backyard looking onto the Loxahatchee River. Bradley's only official roommate is his high school pal Jon Curran, who was an All-America golfer at Vanderbilt. But four of Bradley's St. John's teammates more or less live there too. All are chasing the dream on various mini-tours. Asked what this crew does for fun, Curran says, "Mostly we play golf. That's what's fun for us."
Bradley's pals are an everyday reminder of the razor-thin difference between fame and fortune on Tour and the hand-to-mouth existence of the itinerant mini-tour grinder. "Sure, they beat me when we tee it up," Bradley says. "It has happened plenty of times. When we play, we're grinding. If we get a match going, there's no working on your game. It's all good fun until the 13th or 14th hole comes around, and then it gets real quiet."
Bradley also benefits from the scene at his home course, the Bear's Club, which counts Luke Donald, Ernie Els, Dustin Johnson and Camilo Villegas as members. Donald especially serves as a mentor and inspiration. "I love that people have doubted him and he keeps sticking it to them," Bradley says, sounding, of course, as if he's describing himself. Studying Donald's fabulous shor t game convinced Bradley last month to finally put a 60° wedge in his bag, replacing his old 58. (He was also influenced by his regular practice-round matches with Phil Mickelson: "His short game is so good, and it's so annoying when you're playing against him," Bradley says.) Bradley is famously an obsessive Boston sports fan, and through the Bear's Club he has become buddies with a guy who once dropped 63 points on the Celtics in a playoff game.
"I had a little Nassau with Jordan not too long ago," Bradley says. "The whole time Michael is in my ear. I loved it." Playing as a +7, Bradley had to give his Airness a pop on both 17 and 18. Jordan won the penultimate hole to set up a do-or-die finish on the Bear's Club par-5 18th. Bradley pulled his drive and was left with an awkward stance in which one foot was in a bunker and one foot was out. "He's in my ear the whole way, telling me I suck, telling me I'm going to choke," says Bradley. "It's great. I can't get enough of it." From 230 yards he smoked his approach to within 25 feet of the flag: "I swear it's one of the best shots I've ever hit." Lining up his eagle putt, Bradley woofed, "You know this is going in." It did. "You've seen this before, haven't you?" he crowed. Jordan then gagged a six-footer for birdie, for which he promptly blamed his caddie.
In 2012, Bradley ranked first in the Tour's all-around stat, but it is the ability to come through in the clutch that defines him. "He wants the ball at the end of the game," says his coach, Jim McLean. "That's not something you can teach." Bradley's tough-guy reputation was cemented at the Ryder Cup, though he still aches at having lost a taut singles match to late-arriving Rory McIlroy, who subsequently talked a little trash on Twitter. "I thought that was awesome," says Bradley. "I saw him two days later at Bear's Club and went up to him and said, real serious, 'I hear you want a piece of me.' He was like, Uh, well, gee, uh. . . . Finally I couldn't keep from smiling, and then he relaxed because he knew I was joking.
"I love Rory. I would love to be coming down the stretch with him. I think he's great for the game, and I think Rory and I are going to be playing against each other for a long time. I look forward to it."
It is a measure of Bradley's popularity that he also gets grief from the game's other keynote player. "Tiger gives it to me so good," he says. "The belly-putter stuff is nonstop. At [last month's World Challenge] we were on the putting green and he would not shut up about it, so finally I just grabbed his putter. I dropped four balls, and all of a sudden I notice everybody's paying attention. I'm looking at about an eight-footer. I make the first one, I make the second one, and then I look up at the guys and say, 'Is this supposed to be hard?' I missed the third, made the fourth and then just walked away. That shut up Tiger pretty good."
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Bradley was the first player to win a major championship with a belly putter. The World Challenge was his first event after the USGA announced its anchoring ban, and he was called a "cheater" by a heckler in an incident that was well-publicized. Otherwise, he says golf fans have been overwhelmingly supportive. "When [the proposed rule change] was announced, I got hundreds and maybe thousands of comments on Twitter from people saying, 'Keegan, will you please fight this? I'm 60, I've been putting with one for 30 years, my back is bad, I can't play without one. Please fight for me.' That was amazing."
The anchoring ban won't kick in until Jan. 1, 2016, and Bradley is in no hurry to make a change, even though he knows that rubs some people the wrong way. "Who knows what the reaction will be when one of us wins a tournament with a long putter," he says. "Or a major. It's inevitable it will be spoken about." Bradley is confident he'll have no trouble adapting to a new putter. He won numerous college events with what he calls "a shortie" and also used one to take his first professional victory, on the Hooters tour in 2009. "I've always grabbed my buddies' putters just for fun, so the shorter putters still feel comfortable," he says. "People are under the impression I'm scared to putt with one, or I have the yips or something. That's ridiculous. I'll be fine."
In fact, the putter controversy may be helpful to golf's most obsessive-compulsive young star, who heading into the Tournament of Champions was up to 13th in the World Ranking but forever looking for something to prove. "This putter stuff simply adds to the whole underdog thing," Bradley says. "I love it. It's more fuel for me."
With that final thought, he excused himself from dinner. It was 7:30 on a humid Hawaiian night. Bradley had some TV to watch, and it was getting late.