Keegan Bradley, Stuck in a Title Drought, Seeks to Extend His Season

Keegan Bradley, Stuck in a Title Drought, Seeks to Extend His Season

LAKE FOREST, Ill. — The Air Jordan golf shoes on his feet and the United States Ryder Cup yardage book cover poking out of his back pocket spoke to Keegan Bradley’s august credentials. They established his connections to the sporting nobleman Michael Jordan and to the game’s most patrician pro team event.

Bradley was tied for fifth after the first day of the BMW Championship at Conway Farms Golf Club, but he chased his opening six-under-par 65 with a 72 on Friday and fell into a tie for 28th, 11 strokes behind the halfway leader, Marc Leishman.

On days like Friday, when Bradley’s aim is off and his putts are not dropping, he resembles in name only the player who was pegged as the future of men’s golf after winning three PGA Tour events, including a major, in his first 48 starts. He has since gone 134 tournaments without an official victory.

During his title drought, the men’s game has been overtaken by a new world order. Of the first five players in the global standings, only top-ranked Dustin Johnson was on the PGA Tour when Bradley won for the third time, at the 2012 Bridgestone Invitational. Since then, Jordan Spieth, Hideki Matsuyama, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm have turned professional and combined for 23 Tour victories.

Bradley’s piecemeal decline after his meteoric rise started with a swing change and was exacerbated by the 2016 ban on the anchored putting stroke, which Bradley used to win the 2011 P.G.A. Championship and his two regular Tour titles. He described the switch to a conventional putter as “tougher than I thought,” but said Thursday that he likes how he feels on the greens now.

Bradley putted beautifully in the first round, draining five birdie putts that were 10 feet or longer. But it was a nervy seven-footer that he made to save par on his third-to-last hole that gave him reason to believe that he was on the verge of a really good run.

“I feel a lot more like the person I was out on the course now,” Bradley said, adding, “Really proud of the way I played today.”

His retreat on Friday continued a clumsy dance with golf — over the past two years, Bradley has taken one step back for every two forward. On the eve of the first round here, he was buoyed by an unexpected text from Phil Mickelson, who might have been feeling nostalgic.

Five Septembers ago, Mickelson and Bradley paired for a 3-0 record in the Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, 37 miles southwest of Conway Farms. Bradley, a rookie, swept the veteran Mickelson along in his cyclonic enthusiasm during the Americans’ upset loss to Europe. Two years later, Bradley was a captain’s pick. He wasn’t included on last year’s winning team.

“Watching the Ryder Cup, I was excited for them, but that was tough,” said Bradley, who didn’t post a top-20 finish in the first five months of 2016.

Several players have reached out to Bradley over the past year with words of support. Ernie Els, the former world No. 1 from South Africa, told him about dropping from the top spot to eighth in the world during one of his rough patches. Bradley, whose ranking plummeted from 10th in August 2013 to 120th in June of this year, appreciated Els’s support even if his situation wasn’t exactly analogous.

Throughout all the highs and the lows there has been Mickelson, 47, who on Wednesday wrote to say he was thinking of Bradley, 31, and pulling for him to play well. He predicted that they were both going to have a great week.

“He’s always looking out for me,” Bradley said of Mickelson, who was tied for 12th at seven under after a second-round 69.

Both began the week outside the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings. Mickelson is 36th and Bradley 48th, which means they need to finish well here to advance to next week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta.

Bradley hasn’t advanced to the playoff finale since 2013, and he made it his goal at the start of the season to play his way to Atlanta. Toward that end, he has made 29 starts, seven more than both Mickelson and the FedEx Cup points leader, Spieth.

“I put so much work in at home, the last thing I want to do is hit more balls on the range or spend more time on the putting green,” Bradley said. “I just want to be out here. A lot of cool stuff can happen if you do well out here. So I’m in a playing mode.”

The 30 players who advance to the Tour Championship also gain entry into the four majors the next season, which is a huge incentive for Bradley. This year, he failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time since 2011.

“That was awful,” Bradley said. “I normally would go early and practice and play a little bit. That was always super fun for me.” He added: “It’s motivation to play better. Only I can fix that.”

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Published at Fri, 15 Sep 2017 23:22:22 +0000

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