AKRON, Ohio — It is about a five-and-a-half-hour drive from the Greenbrier in West Virginia to Firestone Country Club for the Bridgestone Invitational.
It’s a big event. It has a big purse, a small field and no cut. And Keegan Bradley, playing in a World Golf Championship event for the first time, drove here in a car. With his caddie. He did not take a private jet.
“It reminded me of my Hooters Tour days, for sure,” Bradley said.
After he got here, Bradley talked to his dad on the phone. “The first thing he asked was, ‘Did you see the water tower?'” Bradley said. “I told him, ‘Yeah. It’s really cool.'”
The water tower, shaped like a giant golf ball on a giant tee, is the club’s famous landmark. The Firestone logo is emblazoned on it, and the tower stands starkly alone, like a lighthouse on a rocky shoreline.
The enthusiasm of a Tour rookie is as refreshing as a tall mint julep at The Kentucky Derby. To Bradley, who has dreamed of playing pro golf ever since he can remember dreaming, this week is truly pinch-yourself time.
“This place is everything it’s made out to be,” said Bradley, 25, who grew up in Woodstock, Vt . “I’m so thrilled to be here.”
This week just keeps getting better for him. He shot 65, five birdies and no bogeys, in Friday’s round and is tied for the lead with Ryan Moore, Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott.
“It was really fun to be out there on the leaderboard,” Bradley said. “I had Luke Donald behind me, Phil Mickelson a few groups behind me. It’s kind of happening in front of my eyes, which is a weird feeling to describe. But it’s spectacular. I can’t express how much fun I’m having.
“To be in contention at Firestone in the World Golf Championship, I probably don’t really realize what’s going on yet. I’m just trying to enjoy it because if you think about it, it’ll probably get you screwed up.”
Bradley is one of several surprises on the PGA Tour this year, along with Greenbrier winner Scott Stallings, Bob Hope champ Jhonattan Vegas, Transitions winner Gary Woodland and Valero Texas Open champ Brendan Steele. Bradley won the Byron Nelson Championship in a playoff and has also been a revelation.
During the week of the Nelson, he attended a PGA Tour mid-season dinner for rookies despite forgetting to R.S.V.P. The dinner entertainment included a video montage of all the rookies except Bradley, since he hadn’t responded to his invitation. Then he went out and won the tournament.
He’s won almost $1.9 million so far this season, and his game seems very well-rounded. He also has a veteran caddie in Steve Hale, known as Pepsi. Maybe it’s because he’s a New Englander who played college golf at St. John’s in New York and became a pro without great expectations, but he also has a normal-sized ego.
Now he’s made it. He’s in an elite tournament of world-class players, and he’s buddies with Phil Mickelson, which happens to be part of why he shot 65 on Friday.
“I played a practice round with Phil on Wednesday,” Bradley said, “and on the third hole, he said, ‘Keegan, you’ve got to come over here and hit this putt. It breaks left but it looks like it breaks right.’ Sure enough, I had that exact putt today.”
So Bradley told Pepsi, here’s that putt Phil told us about. It was a 12-footer.
“I wanted to make it so bad so I could go back and tell Phil later tonight,” said Bradley, who did, indeed, sink the birdie putt. “That was pretty cool.”
Their relationship sprang from the fact that they’re represented by the same management company. And Mickelson has made a point of helping some younger players along, giving them insight while trying to get into their wallets during practice rounds.
“It’s intense, and it’s always fun, but coming down the last couple of holes it gets a little quiet,” Bradley said of the practice games. “I read that he’s doing it to help us young players in case we play a Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup. Phil takes a lot of guys under his wing. At The Players, he gave me his phone number and told me to text him any time.”
Shortly after winning the Nelson the following week, Bradley got congratulatory texts from Mickelson and his caddie, Jim (Bones) Mackay.
Another Mickelson tip came into play for Bradley in the second round. It was advice about how to handle late afternoon tee times. (Bradley was off at 1 p.m. Friday.) Mickelson told him to get to the course hours early instead of lounging around the hotel wasting time, and do some chipping and putting and get into the competitive mode.
“Phil said, ‘If you’re playing a match with your buddies and they said they had a time at 2, you wouldn’t get there at 1, you’d get there at 10 and practice a bit,'” Bradley said. “That’s so true. I would never do that. It’s really been helping.”
Whenever Bradley has a late tee time, he tries to stay up late the night before so he can sleep in. How late is late? “I try to stay up to at least 11,” he said, laughing.
Meet Keegan Bradley, wild man and party animal.
“Yeah, that’s way past my usual bedtime,” he said.
Bradley is the nephew of Hall of Fame golfer Pat Bradley, a former Solheim Cup captain. He moved to Boston when he was 17 and now lives in Jupiter, Fla. He’ll always be a New Englander, he said.
Right now, he’s enjoying the spotlight.
“Today was one of the most fun days of my career, for sure,” Bradley said after his round.
When Bradley finished talking to some writers in the media center, he left and walked back toward the clubhouse, directly toward the giant golf ball water tower. Bradley didn’t have to say it. You knew exactly what he was thinking.
Yeah, pretty cool.