Former PGA champions Phil Mickelson, Keegan Bradley working their way back to better golf
LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Phil Mickelson was reminded of happier times he shared with Keegan Bradley.
Earlier this year at the Memorial, as Mickelson was waiting for the fairway to clear on the par-5 15th hole at Muirfield Village, he told a story from the Presidents Cup in 2013, back when he and Bradley were regular partners in team competitions.
It was during foursomes on the second day of the matches that Mickelson and Bradley played some of their best golf. They shot 30 in alternate shot on the front nine. They were 6 up with six holes to play against Jason Day and Graham DeLaet. But then Bradley missed a short putt on the 13th to close out the match, and he missed another putt to end it on the 14th. Mickelson had seen enough.
On the par-5 15th, DeLaet had about 8 feet for birdie. Bradley had 4 feet for birdie. That's when Mickelson stepped in and conceded DeLaet's putt. Bradley looked at his partner as if he had lost his mind. Mickelson told Bradley that it was time to end the match, and Bradley followed orders.
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Mickelson about doubled over telling the story this year.
He has served as somewhat of a mentor since Bradley's amazing rookie season in 2011, when he won the PGA Championship in the first major he ever played. They were undefeated in team matches a year later at the Ryder Cup. Five years ago, they both were among the top 10 in the world ranking.
Now they share something else in common.
Each has gone more than four years without winning. Both are outside the top 30 in the FedEx Cup going into the BMW Championship, needing a good week at Conway Farms to have any chance to reaching the FedEx Cup finale at the Tour Championship.
That's one reason Mickelson sent Bradley a text on the eve of the opening round.
"We all go through highs and lows in this game," Mickelson said. "He and I have been on a stretch where we are not playing at our best and we are close to getting it back. I can see in it his game, I can feel in it my game and I really enjoy playing on the events with him. ... And I just sent him a little text. 'Hey, let's have a special week, we're close, we're playing well, let's put it together this week.'
"Because his upside — his potential as a player — is as high as just about anybody."
The opening round Thursday at the BMW Championship was but a small step.
Bradley birdied his opening three holes on his way to a 65. Mickelson played bogey-free for a 66.
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Mickelson believes he has found a cure for losing focus and energy during a round, much of that attributed to his psoriatic arthritis. He won't go into details on what changed, hinting only at diet and some medication. He finished sixth two weeks ago. Every week, he looks better.
Mickelson's text message was meaningful to Bradley, along with other words of encouragement he has received during this slump from the likes of Ernie Els. Bradley dropped as low as No. 120 in the world this summer, and now is barely inside the top 100.
What really stung was in April, when he was home watching the Masters on TV for the first time since his rookie season. His five-year exemption from winning the PGA Championship had expired.
"It stinks. It's no fun. No fun watching majors at home, no fun watching Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups at home," Bradley said. "You start feeling bad for yourself. You've got to put more effort in, work harder and practice harder and play more, and hopefully it will pay off.
"It's motivation to play better," he said. "Only I can fix that."
Bradley has a long way to go. He likely needs to finish in the top five to have any chance of getting to the Tour Championship. If he can get to Atlanta, he would be assured of getting in all four majors next year. "You're basically top 50 in the world," Bradley said.
He also has a baby due in November.
Perhaps more importantly, Bradley has motivation again. For years, he played as though he had something to prove. He wasn't recruited to top colleges, instead playing at St. John's. He kicked around in the minor leagues and worked his way up to the PGA Tour while hearing plenty of doubters along the way.
But after winning three times — including a major and a World Golf Championship — in his first two years, he began a slow slide.
The motivation now?
"Everyone thinks I stink. You should read my Twitter feed," he said. "I look forward to coming out every day and proving people wrong. ... Things are different now. I have a lot to work for, a lot more years out here. And I look forward to that."