By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM Chief of Correspondents
JOHNS CREEK, Ga. -- A week ago at Firestone Country Club, Keegan Bradley had a chance to win the World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational before what the 25-year-old called a "horrifying" back-nine 41 sent him tail-tucked and tumbling down down the leaderboard.
The way he so "completely lost it" that afternoon scared Bradley, and he immediately sought some words of wisdom from his sports psychologist Bob Rotella and instructor Jim McLean. Phil Mickelson and Camilo Villegas offered more perspective only those who play the game at the highest level can understand.
So when Bradley had another chance to win on an even bigger stage at the 93rd PGA Championship on Sunday, he was ready. So what if Bradley triple-bogeyed the 15th hole at the Atlanta Athletic Club to fall five shots off the pace? He didn't hang his head. Bradley simply concentrated on the fact that he had three holes left to turn things in his favor -- and that's exactly what he did.
A birdie at the 16th hole was the first step. Ditto for that 40-footer Bradley drained on the par-3 17th, a putt that he said he would remember for the rest of his life -- and he'll have the fist-pumping highlights to show for it.
By the time Bradley hit his approach shot to the 18th green, he was tied for the lead with Jason Dufner, who was stumbling down the stretch not unlike the PGA TOUR rookie had done the previous week. And this time, Bradley seized the opportunity, making birdie on the first hole of the three-hole aggregate playoff and parring out for the career-defining win.
"It feels unbelievable," Bradley said. "It seems like a dream and I'm afraid I'm going to wake up here in the next five minutes and it's not going to be real."
Not to worry. The gleaming silver Wanamaker Trophy -- the one he photographed with the camera in his cell phone after he sat down in the media center Sunday night -- will be sitting in his hotel room Monday morning. And there are some other pretty tantalizing things to consider now that Bradley has become the first player to win in his major championship debut since Ben Curtis at the 2003 British Open.
The victory put Bradley squarely in the conversation as one of the favorites entering the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup, as he moved up 20 spots and is now No. 4 on the points list entering the final week of the regular season. He also becomes the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year -- and you might also say the same for Player of the Year. After all, he's one of just five players with two wins on TOUR this season -- and more importantly, the only one with a major championship.
Bradley may not be as well-known as some of the game's other young stars. At least, not until Sunday, but Bradley didn't seem to mind as he glanced over at all 27 pounds of the spoils of victory.
"Ever since I was 10 years old, I've kind of flown under the radar," he said. "I've been having a good year, and that's just the way it happens with me, which is fine. I was happy with it. It's cool to be thought of as one of those guys now. I've always wanted to win tournaments and win majors, which I can't believe this thing is sitting next to me. It's an honor to be even thought of in that category."
The enthusiastic and engaging Bradley also has made a meteoric rise in the Official World Golf Ranking this year, starting at No. 329 and moving to 29th after Sunday's career-making victory. And he's no longer just Pat Bradley's nephew -- although the New Englander, who was born the year his aunt won three major championships, never seems to mind the questions.
"I grew up going to Pat's tournaments and totally idolizing her and wanting to be like her," Bradley said. "I remember as a kid ... literally staring her in the face and I'm her nephew and she was so into it she wouldn't even recognize me."
Bradley had that kind of focus on Sunday as he made up a five-stroke deficit over the final three holes and added drama to a PGA Championship that was threatening to become a runaway. As fierce as he was on the golf course Sunday, though, Bradley has a wide-eyed innocence about him that makes it hard not to root for him to succeed.
After all, this is a guy who prepared for his playoff with Dufner by tickling his 10-month-old nephew A.K. and tossing him into the air. Bradley, who gave up competitive skiing at the age of 12, is clearly living his dream, and he's had too many welcome-to-the-PGA-TOUR moments to count. Like the time earlier this week he heard Jim Furyk -- yes, that Jim Furyk -- tell a TV interviewer how much he appreciated the advice Bradley gave him about using the belly putter.
"Is this real life??" Bradley tweeted.
And speaking of advice, the words he got from his brain trust and his mentor Mickelson after the meltdown at Firestone were simple, almost cliched, Bradley shyly admitted. Forget about results. Don't think about what this birdie or that eagle could mean in the overall scheme of things. And by all means, don't ever get ahead of yourself.
"Phil has been great to me," Bradley said of his frequent practice-round partner. "He's just told me to, you know, stay more patient out there. And the major thing I tried to do this week was under react to everything whether it was a good thing or a terrible thing."
So Bradley underreacted to that near-disasterous triple bogey. The birdie at the 17th, well, maybe not so much. "But that was something that just came out of me," Bradley said, grinning. "I didn't even know it was coming."
The joy, though, was infectious, inspiring, even, and won Bradley hearts as well as a trophy.