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A fear of failure keeps Ryder Cup star Keegan Bradley focused and working hard

Keegan Bradley, Belly Putter
Fred Vuich/SI
BELLY ACHE: Bradley has been ribbed and even heckled for sticking with his long putter, but he doesn't plan to change anytime soon.

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."

(Related Photos: Pros affected by the anchor ban)

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.

This article originally appeared in the January 14, 2013 issue of Sports Illustrated, on newstands now. Click here to subscribe to Sports Illustrated.

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