The first moments Keegan Bradley had alone with the Wanamaker Trophy were also the first moments he ever spent on a private jet. After the playoff against Jason Dufner, the awards presentation, the interviews and the endless handshakes in and around the nooks of Atlanta Athletic Club, it was getting late, and the PGA of America had the good sense to arrange travel home for its newest champion.
Keegan sat the trophy in the seat next to him, the heft and handles not dissimilar to a toddler, and buckled its seat belt. The new texts and voicemails on his phone totaled deep into the hundreds. Among the first was from Jim (Bones) Mackay, the caddie of Keegan's mentor, Phil Mickelson. The veteran looper knew better than most what winning a major meant for a career. As the jet gained speed on the runway and lifted, G-forces pressed Keegan's neck and spine back into the plush leather, and he couldn't help but think of where he'd come from and where he was going.
When Keegan touched back to earth in Florida, waiting to pick him up was his best friend, Jon Curran. Among many memories together, one was winning the Massachusetts public high school team state championship in 2004. Keegan also won the individual title that year, so this celebration, this memory, would vibrate on two amplitudes.
Coach Dick Bliss, who led (or at least chaperoned) that unbeatable Hopkinton High golf team, recalls Keegan received the third-most attention of his players that season. Curran was the No. 1-ranked junior golfer in the state, and freshman Kim Donovan (who would go on to play for Duke), was beating boys from tees forward, back and middle.
"Keegan was flying under the radar," Bliss says. "If a par 4 was under 350 yards he could think about driving the green, but still, not many big-time college recruiters gave him much of a look."
"I was longer in high school than I am now," says Keegan, which is scary if you believe it. At 26 his gangly frame has hardened from workouts with a personal trainer, and the accuracy of his 300-yard average helps him rank seventh in PGA Tour total driving. To imagine the freewheeling violence of his pubescent transition (at the top of the swing, that is) would make a chiropractor wince.
Even though Keegan spent just his senior year at Hopkinton, he and Curran grew close. This was the year after Keegan's parents' divorce, and it had been a quick move for his father, Mark, to take the assistant-pro job at Hopkinton Country Club while Keegan's mother, Kaye, and younger sister, Madison, stayed in Woodstock, Vt. Short on options, the man and boy took up in a 21-foot space in Crystal Springs trailer park. The top bunk was too short for Keegan's sprouting 6-3 frame, so the boy got to have the roomier tabletop that converted into a bed. They stayed here for seven months, until hard winter hit.
The trailer's nickname was the Tin Cup II. "Oh, yeah, we spent some time up there," says Curran, lounging on the giant L-shape sofa in Keegan's recently purchased home in Tequesta, Fla. Right outside the sliding-glass doors is a swimming pool, a grill, three basketball hoops of varying seriousness, a television and a dock with direct access to a fork of the Jupiter Inlet. Curran is playing the Hooters Tour, hoping to join his benevolent landlord on the big tour soon.
"It was a lot of fun," Keegan says. "My mom gets sad when I talk about the trailer because she thinks people will think I had an unhappy childhood, but I had the greatest childhood. It didn't have a bathroom, and there were a lot of interesting people living in the park. But I don't remember ever once thinking it was bad."
There was no reason to. This wasn't The Road by Cormac McCarthy. This was only a continuation of what Keegan had always done: roll with his dad and play golf all day. Food and shelter were plenty, and both kept their necks scrubbed enough to go to the club. And for Keegan to go to school, of course, but he didn't worry about that so much.
"He always wanted to be a golfer," his mother says. "From 5 and 6 years old."
It was at this age that Keegan began riding to work with his dad, every day in summer. Mark was the head pro at the Haystack Golf Club in Wilmington, Vt., and he liked to be there at daybreak. Keegan was as slow as most young children at waking. He was perpetually groggy, yet insistent he be woken.
"One morning I left him," Mark says. "I had a lot going on at the course, and I just had to get going. Later that morning he had his mom drive him the 25 miles. Out he gets from the car with his golf clubs. He had his lower-lip thing going like he was about to cry. He was mad as hell. One day, he must've been 9 or 10, I told Keegan, 'Look, why don't you take a day off? Go swim in a creek with your buddies or something.' You know, go be a normal kid. But he just looked at me and said, 'No, it's what I want to do.' "
The story of Mark becoming a golf professional is wrapped in the story of his meeting and falling in love with Kaye Hansen. After a couple of semesters at the University of Vermont, he ventured west to Jackson, Wyo., and dug in, part of the wave of outdoor-recreation enthusiasts to migrate to the fantastic possibilities of that section of the Teton range. For eight years Mark lived the modest life of a fly-fishing guide, and he skied a lot of really epic turns in the winter. But eventually Kaye, another avid northeastern ski émigré, convinced Mark to return to New England to raise a family.
Mark wasn't a member of the PGA, but he was a good player. The fishing guide took the job as Haystack's pro on the condition he would quickly pass the player-ability test and take the required steps, which he did.
And so life was perfect. In the summer Keegan rode to the course with his dad and behaved like he knew people were watching him more closely. In the winter, Mark skated on skis up the slopes of Suicide Six to set gates, and he would watch his two children race down toward him, growing larger and increasingly defined on the white snow.
By 13, Keegan was a scratch golfer and a near-scratch ski racer. To ask which sport he loved more was unnecessary; a Vermont boy simply celebrated life in accordance with the seasons.
But if he was truly serious about eventually making a living, it was time to decide. Uncle John handled it in the car one day on their way to go skiing.
"I was relieved when Keegan told me golf was it," John Bradley says. "It was funny because I think he thought he was hurting my feelings."
John Bradley had raced professionally for four years and later ran RJ Bradley's, the ski shop founded by Keegan's grandparents in 1955 in Westford, Mass. John knew, from the perspective opposite of his famous golfing sister, Pat, that their nephew's prospects were grandest in the game of the little white ball.
Something about Keegan's facial features make him easy to imagine at any age, lean and freckled, carrying his bag up the day's 36th fairway. His shirt and shorts are too baggy, and he's on his way to the range or the putting green until his ride leaves. To members he's respectful, quiet, focused. To buddies his age he's the best player around. To all of them, he's very, very competitive.
Junior golfers and skiers from other towns learned to recognize his name as one who was probably going to beat them. At a junior match-play event at Mount Anthony Country Club, a Bennington, Vt., public course known as Mt. Agony for its cruel hops and steep climbs, Keegan exhibited gamesmanship at 16.
"Even if he teed off second, he'd quickly grab his bag and run to get ahead," says Jerome Doherty, then coach of the Woodstock High golf team. "His Aunt Pat taught him that, to make an opponent get used to seeing his ass all day."
Keegan doesn't remember doing this, but he doesn't deny it, either. "I might have been a little too intense back then," he says, grinning. His piercing blue irises and the shape of his jaw make it seem as if he's always grinning. When he isn't, like when he's grinding over a six-footer, he has the striking wholesomeness of an angry Greg Brady.
In youth sport and other forms of competition, Vermont (pop. 626,000) offers more chances at the psychological breeding a big fish gets from a small pond. Acting as counter, Vermonters are typically realists, shaped to be cautious from working outdoors in four distinct weather seasons. Though proud, most are quick to allow that being the best at something inside their skinny borders usually doesn't travel well. (Just one of many unofficial state slogans: Don't get too big fer yer britches.) So when John Bradley bragged about his nephew to golf buddies, they always reminded him of the mythical kids of Texas and Florida who did nothing but beat balls all year.
Maybe this is why Keegan's father was compelled to go to Wyoming, where the giant waters rushed with trout that dwarfed those back home. Adventuring in the backcountry with skiers who'd grown up on terrain three times the size and danger of the Green Mountains, Mark would discover that what mattered was how much you believed in yourself, not where you came from.
But maybe most important in Keegan's development was that the occupation of touring pro was not a foreign concept to the Bradleys. Hall of Famer Aunt Pat, owner of 31 LPGA Tour victories, had proved it could be done. Even so, most people outside the family dismissed Keegan's chances as they would any Vermont son's.
"Moving from Vermont to Massachusetts felt like a really huge jump," he says. Even though the state tournament was only one round, Keegan's winning 69 caught some attention. St. John's University coach Frank Darby couldn't entice Keegan with top-notch practice facilities--or any practice facilities--but he offered his belief and a network of relationships with top metropolitan-area courses. The team was a regular at places like Garden City, Winged Foot, Westchester and Wheatley Hills.
swing and went on to win the PGA championship).
"We played a lot," Darby says. "I almost never let them hit balls for more than 15 minutes. And since we had a national travel schedule, I tried to match the conditions. If we were heading to a tournament in Texas, I'd take them to a course on the south shore, where it'd be windy."
Keegan remembers afternoon practice as more of a scramble. "It was whatever course would just give in to Darby," he laughs. "We'd be sitting in class, looking at our phones with no word, then at the last minute we'd get a text about where we were playing, and we'd hop in our cars and race over." In the fall, the team was permitted to play Bethpage Black on Mondays, when the course was closed. The players drove in through the superintendent's entrance, making their regular loop holes 4 through 13.
What's undeniable is that Darby somehow figured out how to let seeds of talent find perches in the paved streets of Queens. St. John's alum and Nationwide Tour player Andrew Svoboda is virtually a lock to secure his PGA Tour card for 2013. Evan Beirne, Casey Calmi and Mike Ballo Jr. are all former Bradley teammates steadily building their professional experience on mini-tours, as Keegan did. If you count alum Kevin Velardo, now caddieing for Luke List after taking his shot at pro golf, the potential Red Storm presence on the PGA Tour could rival any school.
Maybe something about riding the subway with your golf bag is mentally fortifying, or maybe Darby's secret was getting hypnotist Peter Solana to volunteer as the team's assistant coach. Though some of the team dismissed Solana's methods as hokum, Svoboda and Keegan were two who didn't.
"Pete was great. A lot of the stuff he taught me is still directly in my golf game today," Keegan says. "Some of the guys on the team who were rude to him, I just wanted to slap. You can get sick of people telling you the same stuff, but what he was saying was cool because it was different." He now gets his sport psychology from Dr. Bob Rotella, who worked with Aunt Pat, but when Keegan putts one can see the Solana influence: There are no practice strokes, and the ball is placed so it's pure white, with no alignment lines.
"If you make a practice stroke you'll try to replicate those mechanics in your real stroke, when all you should be doing is thinking about sinking the putt," Solana says, adding that ditching alignment lines allows players to widen their focus to a track the width of a cup, which is freeing.
Keegan graduated with a couple thousand bucks in his pocket, a Ford Focus with duct-taped side mirrors, and a degree in sports management. Darby got him a job in the Wheatley Hills bag room, but it was understood that his sparse work hours would be a token gesture for his ample hours of practicing and playing. One or two weeks in, he was playing with member Dr. Glenn Muraca, a family-practice physician, and drove it over the hill on the 12th. Muraca had never seen anything like it.
"I'd played in the Bob Hope Pro-Am a number of times, and this kid was better than any pro I'd ever played with," Muraca says. "The sound from his ball was different. And he had that quiet confidence of a truly competitive athlete."
Muraca and Keegan started playing together regularly. Keegan even caddied for Muraca in a U.S. Amateur qualifier. When Keegan flew to California to sign a professional contract with Cleveland Golf/Srixon--which had sponsored the team at St. John's--Muraca flew with him because he had a place there and connections to several exclusive courses.
"I wouldn't call it a sponsorship," Muraca says. "I just didn't want money to be the reason the kid didn't make it."
"The Bradleys weren't the sort of family that would just write a kid a check," Doherty says. "They knew he had to go out on his own, get blown around a bit and be tested."
In the summer of 2008, Muraca bought Keegan a car, a Honda CRV, and wished him luck. On the drive to Florida, Keegan's housing fell through, but he found a room in Orlando with Svoboda, who had graduated from St. John's in 2003. If Keegan is most comfortable surrounded by friends, Svoboda is much more a solitary animal. Like the trailer, the arrangement lasted for seven months.
What happened next can only be described as steady. On the Hooters Tour, Keegan missed four cuts in 26 events and earned $84,000, or about a thousand a round. He missed in the final stage of Q school, and the next year on the Nationwide Tour he made 18 of 28 cuts to earn $265,000 and get his PGA Tour card. The next year is history, and early in 2012 he again showed resolve by making a 12-footer at Riviera's 72nd hole to join Mickelson and Bill Haas in a playoff. What was most impressive, however, was how Keegan handled the heavy criticism generated by airtime of his spitting habit.
"People were vicious, and I almost quit Twitter because of it," he says. Instead, Keegan quit spitting, cold turkey.
Other than that, Keegan says life hasn't changed much. "Yeah, I travel to these tournaments that are incredible, but when I come back I'm hanging out with the same people I've always hung out with." Though Beirne, Ballo and Calmi technically make residence at Keegan's old rental, he says they pretty much live at the new place. "We get big golf games going, come home and fish, grill, watch sports," he says, pleased at the thought. "I hate when I get back from a tournament and the house is empty."
These games give Keegan's friends the chance to see how close (or far) they are from other tour pros like Luke Donald, and maybe even take 20 bucks off them.
"I look at Luke in a weird way as similar to me," Keegan says. "He's No. 1 in the world but doesn't get the credit or the galleries that are 10 deep. When Tiger or Rory is No. 1, it's a big deal. When Luke is No. 1, people say the rankings need to be fixed."
Keegan is still chafed about not being selected for last year's Presidents Cup team. He's even still a little chafed about getting invited to only one Northeast Amateur. To keep a chip on his shoulder, a photograph of the Hopkinton trailer sits next to the Wanamaker Trophy in his bedroom.
Recent workouts with trainer Joey Diovisalvi have excited Keegan. "It's rare that you have an opportunity to make anything in your game significantly better," he says. "This is going to make a difference coming down the stretch on Sunday when I've just played four weeks in a row." As Peter Solana might say, believing it will make the difference is just as good.
"I want to be the best player in the world and do whatever I can to make a run in the world rankings," Keegan says. Watching him throw a football or cast a rod, it's clear he takes pleasure in doing things the best he can.
At St. John's he earned the nickname Grandpa for trying to get the team to go to bed early before tournaments, but it's doubtful that name pins Keegan exactly. When he won the PGA, a newspaper mistakenly referred to a photo of him hugging his sister and nephew on the green as his wife and child. Taking the Wanamaker Trophy around to bars, Keegan made sure to correct that notion.
Going down the stairs, Keegan hobbles just a bit. Yesterday he tweaked his hip on a bike ride with neighbor Camilo Villegas. "I called Camilo and told him we bought these new road bikes," he says. "He shows up in matching white spandex and special glasses and wants to go for 20 miles."
Mark Bradley is back skiing, fishing and teaching golf in Jackson, this time around in a style more befitting an older gentleman. He reports that as proud as he is of his son, Keegan might be growing a little soft with the Florida weather.