Likable, unconventional Bradley is golf's latest breakout star, but will he last?

Likable, unconventional Bradley is golf’s latest breakout star, but will he last?

Keegan Bradley has two wins in his rookie season.
Fred Vuich/SI

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. — Here is what we know about Keegan Bradley, who Red Stormed back from five strokes behind with three holes to play to force a playoff, and edged Jason Dufner in extra holes at the 93rd PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club on Sunday: He hits it a mile, he's good at playoffs (two for two on Tour), and that belly-putter he won with — the first time such a weapon has been used to win a major — is the least unconventional thing about him.

Bradley, 25, was born in Woodstock, Vt., and went to golf powerhouse St. John's University — in, uh, New York City. He turned pro in 2008, and is a rookie on the PGA Tour. He's played exactly one major, making him the first player to win in his maiden crack at these things since Ben Curtis at the 2003 British Open.

"Ever since I was 10 years old," Bradley said, "I've kind of flown under the radar."

Well, yes. He wears red on Sunday but he's no Tiger; he wears Oakley but isn't Rory. Bradley is not dating a tennis star, like McIlroy is, or an LPGA siren, as Dustin Johnson was for about 10 minutes. Bradley is a devout Boston Red Sox fan, a reformed ski-racer, a protégé of Phil Mickelson, and possessed of a sort of geeky, yet infectious loose-limbed joie de vivre that is nothing if not Mickelsonian. Oh, and LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley is Keegan's aunt.

And there it is: Golf's next star. But will he become golf's next superstar? Sorry, but we have to ask. We've been identifying potential next superstars for the last seven majors, which have been won by seven different players. We're feeling a little vulnerable right now.

"I hope I don't disappear," Bradley said. "I don't plan to."

McIlroy, of course, saw his PGA vaporized by a tree root. He shot a final-round 74 to finish 11 over par Sunday, well back in the pack, and was asked whether he might be off to shop for a house in Florida.

"I'm actually going to go to Cincinnati for a few days," he said. "I hear it's nice there this time of year."

A large scrum of reporters laughed, because McIlroy has been romantically linked to tennis star Caroline Wozniacki, who will play in the WTA's Western & Southern Open in — ta da! — Cincinnati.

It was that kind of PGA for golf's bold-faced names, who had to laugh to keep from crying. Lee Westwood was asked after the third round if there was anything different he might try to fix his putting. "I don't know," said Westwood, who shot 68 to miss the playoff by five shots. "Different religion, maybe?"

British Open champion Darren Clarke stood on the fourth tee Friday, 11 over par and heading for an early exit with six holes remaining, when a caddie asked if he'd like something to drink. "Beer," said Clarke. A moment later he dunked his tee shot in the pond in front of the green and made double-bogey. He shot 78-76 and looked considerably older than his 42 years.

McIlroy authored by far the week's biggest buzz-kill when he gave himself a stinger while trying to hit an ill-advised shot with a 7-iron from up against a large, very visible tree root on his third hole Thursday. His third hole! Golf is in between superstars because the moment we seem to have found a prime candidate like McIlroy, he goes back whence he came while yet another new guy, like Bradley, emerges seemingly fully formed. What will Keegan do next, and will he at least trump other recent major winners who have set the bar so low?

Four of the last six major winners missed the cut at the PGA, some by a lot, including not just Clarke but also defending PGA champion Martin Kaymer, 2010 British Open winner Louis Oosthuizen and 2010 U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell. McIlroy never came close to contending. Masters champion Charl Schwartzel played well but never got anything going in the final round, shooting 71 to tie for 12th place. Still, his record in the majors this year, which also includes a T16 at the British Open and a T9 at the U.S. Open, suggests he may need to start wearing a red shirt if not dating a tennis player.

Some would still argue that McIlroy is the next Tiger (who also missed the cut by a mile at AAC, in case you're just returning from a camping trip). Maybe he will be, but it's far from a foregone conclusion. On the one hand you have his dismantling of Congressional, where he beat the field by eight shots. But on the other you have his inability to outmaneuver a stubborn piece of tree at Atlanta AC. Doesn't greatness mean avoiding injury to your scorecard and to yourself?

What's more, McIlroy's post-Congressional results (T64 at the PGA, T25 British Open, T34 Irish Open, T6 WGC-Bridgestone) have hardly inspired awe. Just as he came back down to earth after winning the 2010 Wells Fargo with a final-round 62, he's looked his age (22) since capturing the U.S. Open as much as Clarke has looked his age since the British. Including the 2009 Dubai Desert Classic, McIlroy's total number of career victories stands at three.

"We'll have stars, but I don't know if we're going to have a superstar," a caddie for a well-known American player told me. "How many times has Rory won? Tiger was so insanely focused for so long. He was just different. Is there anybody out there like that now? If there is, I don't see him."

Luke Donald admitted at this PGA that the game is more interesting when one person dominates. Many people agree. Maybe Bradley, who won the HP Byron Nelson for his first victory in May, will dominate. Maybe not.

"It's as deep as it's ever been," he said of the Tour, "and I think it's only getting deeper."

For the time being we'll just be stuck with this: a new weapon at the disposal of U.S. Presidents Cup captain Fred Couples, the hands-down 2011 Rookie of the Year, a new candidate for the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team, and a right-handed Mickelson Mini Me. When you look at it that way, Keegan Bradley isn't half-bad.

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