It was in Keegan Bradley’s head, inescapable and at times even crippling. For a while, he couldn’t shake it. And he’s not fully over it yet.
“It’s tough when somebody says you can’t use one of the best parts of your game,” Bradley says. “I had thousands of hours of practice taken away from me that I’m trying to gain back.
“It’s been difficult. You try to master something, then someone takes it away.”
In 2011, Bradley became the first player on tour to win a major championship using a belly putter. Webb Simpson and Adam Scott soon followed with wins at the U.S. Open and Masters, and in the summer of 2013, a few months removed from Scott’s victory at Augusta National, the USGA and R&A announced that a ban on anchoring would go into effect on Jan. 1 of this year.
The news was disappointing to Bradley, a long hitter off the tee and precise ballstriker who in his first few years on tour was also a better than average putter. In the span of 15 months, he won three times, including his first major.
Tall and athletic with piercing blue eyes, dark hair and a cool demeanor, he appeared on track for superstardom, particularly because underneath it all was real talent from tee to green that was fueled by a fair amount of grit.
For starters, Bradley’s aunt as you might have heard is former LPGA player Pat Bradley, who grinded through a career that put her in the Hall of Fame. Keegan, meanwhile, grew up in Vermont, where he was an all-state ski racer, and later New Hampshire and eventually Massachusetts, winning a state championship in golf his senior year. Big-time college programs didn’t give him much of a look, however, and he landed at St. John’s, located just off the Grand Central Parkway in Queens.
He won nine times in four years and after graduating in 2008 hardened his skills on the Hooters Tour, q school and Nationwide Tour before reaching the PGA Tour in 2011. Once he did, success was instant. In his first three years, he racked up 16 top 10s and tallied at least $3.6 million in earnings each season. Golf World even ran a story in 2012 with the headline “The Next One?”
The question now is when will the next victory come for Bradley? He hasn’t won since 2012 and the last two years has struggled mightily with his putting, ranking 128th in strokes gained in 2015 and 195th so far this year.
“It frustrated me,” Bradley says of the anchoring ban. “In the back of your mind you’re always thinking, ‘Man if I still had it.’”
It hasn’t been just the putting, though.
Bradley has changed coaches twice -- from Jim McLean, to Chuck Cook, briefly back to McLean and eventually earlier this year Aussie Darren May, who is based at Bradley’s home course, The Bear’s Club, in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, and close in age to his 30-year-old student.
Similarly, Bradley just recently parted ways with veteran caddie Steve “Pepsi” Hale, who was on the bag when he beat Jason Dufner in a playoff at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011. Chad Reynolds, who again is close in age to Bradley, is currently on the bag.
“Probably one of the most difficult decisions in my life,” Bradley says of splitting with Hale. “We’d been through a lot.”
At his height, Bradley got as high as 10th in the world in 2013. He also played in two Ryder Cups (2012 and 2014) and a Presidents Cup (2013) and was a celeb across his native New England, throwing out first pitches at Boston Red Sox games, tossing the coin at a New England Patriots game and dropping pucks for the Boston Bruins.
Currently, he is outside the top 100 in the world, is miles from Davis Love III’s radar when it comes to this year’s Ryder Cup and last fall watched as Masters champ Jordan Spieth threw out the ceremonial first ball at a Red Sox-Yankees game at Fenway the week of the Deutsche Bank Championship.
Having the kind of riches Bradley experienced go away is a little like driving a BMW or Mercedes for a few years and then sliding back into a Honda.
“You get used to things,” Bradley said. “You get used to playing Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups and playing in WGCs. Then all of a sudden you’re on the outside looking in. That can be tough.”
That’s where May comes in.
One of the earliest conversations the two had was about the Ryder Cup, an event Bradley would bleed for. May noticed how excited Bradley got whenever he talked about it. May also noticed that when Bradley and Mickelson teamed it was often Bradley giving the fiery pep talk. But when it came to his own game in regular tour events, that was missing.
“We call it going dark,” says May, who was also responsible for instituting a more regimented and structured "every ball counts" practice routine with Bradley. “You can’t hit a couple of bad shots and have your internal dialogue make it worse. He was beating himself up.”
It was the perfect recipe for disaster.
Bradley was used to being near the top of the game and when he wasn’t, he struggled with how to handle it. Then there was the impending anchoring ban. And because he wasn’t putting well he felt like he had to hit every shot close, which only made his ball-striking worse. He was also getting older and as a result trying to find the right combination of coach and caddie as he became more his own man.
There are signs of hope, however. Mickelson and other veterans Ernie Els and Fred Couples have reached out to Bradley to provide encouragement, noting that everyone goes through dips in their career.
Then last November in Mexico, Bradley found a putter and grip he liked -- a longer-than-traditional stick where the butt end of the club rests against the inside left forearm for a right-handed putter -- and tied for eighth in the event.
He went away from it, though, for the poa annua greens of the West Coast and paid the price, missing three of four cuts. Lesson learned. He soon switched back and two weeks ago tied for eighth at the Memorial.
Bradley still isn’t having what would be considered a good year, though, having missed more cuts (10) than he has made (eight), with just two top 10s. But his head at least seems to be in the right spot, and as one coach said, 90 percent of golf is mental and the other 10 percent is, too.
“Everyone comes up to me like, ‘What’s wrong?’ I’m fine,” Bradley says. “I’m trying to enjoy the fight, the battle of coming back.”