MAUI — Settling into our oceanfront table for dinner, Keegan Bradley mused, "This is romantic."
It could have been, under different circumstances. But this was a business dinner, a chance to talk about where this talented 26-year-old is in his career. The venue was a lovely restaurant called Merriman's, usually a favorite destination for anyone who comes to the Tournament of Champions. This is Bradley's second trip to the tourney, but he had never seen the place. Unlike a lot of the other sunburned guys in the field, Maui is not a working vacation for him. Bradley doesn't whale-watch or lie by the pool or snorkel or indulge in other distractions. "That stuff isn't fun for me," he says. "What's fun for me is playing well and having a chance to win."
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It is this single-minded focus that makes Bradley one of the guys to beat this week. He came to Maui alone, arriving on New Year's Eve. He was asleep by 9:30. The day before our dinner was "literally my perfect day," Bradley says. He played a practice round alone, practiced for a while, worked out, watched a handful of episodes of "Breaking Bad" in his hotel room, had room service for dinner and was asleep by 9. Little wonder that Bradley's nickname among friends is "Grandpa."
He points out that he has plenty of fun during his off weeks, rolling with a big crew of college friends who more or less live with him in Jupiter, Fla. But when the lights go on, Bradley is consumed by an almost unhealthy fear of failure that he inherited from his aunt Pat, the LPGA Hall of Famer. "Whenever I go to a tournament, I feel underprepared, even though I've worked as hard as possible," he says. "I always feel I have something to prove."
In what passed for Bradley's off-season, he packed on 10 pounds of muscle thanks to a new devotion to fitness, and he dialed in his wedge game, putting a 60-degree wedge in his bag for the first time in his pro career. One thing he didn't mess with was his famous belly putter. Bradley is committed to using it for the foreseeable future, and the attendant controversy only has him more fired up. Opening day is finally here, and Bradley knows that the Hyundai — with its tiny field — is a golden opportunity to continue his ascent into the big time.
"Since I have no family, I feel like I should be the most prepared of the guys here," he says. "I'm ready to play."