LPGA legend Bradley, 61, takes on pilgrimage to Pyrenees

LPGA legend Pat Bradley on her pilgrimage to the Pyrenees.

LPGA legend Pat Bradley on her pilgrimage to the Pyrenees.

Emotions tugged her one way, but Pat Bradley followed her heart elsewhere. To be at the Ryder Cup in spirit for nephew Keegan was possible; to not be spiritual to herself was impossible, so for the first time in her life she made golf secondary and just walked away.

More accurately, she walked “The Way,” as in The Way of St. James, a pilgrimage that she had planned for more than a year. Little did she know when she committed to the sojurn that it would conflict with the Ryder Cup, into which her precious pride – nephew Keegan Bradley – had thrust himself, and it would easily been understood if she canceled her trip and instead joined her four brothers (Mark, Keegan’s dad; Tom; John; Chris) at Medinah Country Club for the momentous occasion.

Only here’s the deal: At 61, Bradley concedes that “99 percent of my travels have been devoted to golf,” and this was a chance to feel whole, to connect with an inner faith that has always percolated. “I wanted something in my life unrelated to my profession,” she said. “I just wanted to step outside my comfort zone.”

So she watched on television while packing and mentally preparing for the grueling trip. On Oct. 1, the day after Keegan and his teammates had been stunned by Europe’s comeback, Pat Bradley flew out of JFK to start an odyssey that has roots as far back as 1,000 years and is built upon the legend that St. James’ remains were carried from Jerusalem to be buried in Northern Spain.

Bradley – who said she was inspired by the 2010 film “The Way,” that starred Martin Sheen and his son, Emilio Estevez – flew to Barcelona, then to Pamplona, from where she took a cab over the Pyrenees to a town on the French border, Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port.

Up the mountains was one thing, but take it from the World Golf Hall of Famer, “going down the Pyrenees was even tougher,” and weeks later she still has proof. “Three purple toes. I couldn’t wait to get into golf shoes.”

The route she chose, up and over the Pyrenees from France and along Spain’s northern coastline is in the neighborhood of 500 miles. She completed roughly a third of it, walking about 13 miles a day for 11 days and concedes it doesn’t sound like much of a pace.

“If you’re in an automobile you can drive 13 miles in 10 to 12 minutes,” Bradley said. “But when you’re on foot for 13 miles, it was eight hours for me. A lot of things cross your mind, you do a lot of reflecting. I enjoyed the pace. I found friends, they’d go off and I’d find new friends. Then I’d sit back and rest and reflect.”

This was not a Club Med getaway at the beach. The pilgrims take on the Way of St. James in large numbers and have been doing so for centuries. No doubt, social media, movies, books, and articles have brought a greater awareness to the journey and in 2010 it was reported that 272,703 made the walk. A year later, the figure was 179,919. Bradley concedes she was nervous, not knowing for sure what she was getting herself into and when on her first night she was assigned the top bunk in the hostel, or albergue as they called them, she laughed.

“I’m sure my brothers had slept on a top bunk, but I hadn’t,” Bradley said. “But that was just one small example of the challenges that every day brought.”

Her particular group started with 38, but everyone walked at a different pace. The number fell off, then picked up others, then fell off again. Somewhere along The Way she met a couple from Wisconsin and the conversation turned to their home towns. “Turns out the woman went to Westford Academy (in Massachusetts). I went to Westford Academy. Turns out she graduated with (my brother) Chris. It’s just amazing.”

At the start, pilgrims are given a “credencial,” which is their passport for the journey. With the arrival into every village along the way, they get it stamped to indicate how much of the trail they have covered.

“They say it’s your passport straight to heaven,” Bradley laughed. “If you get to the very end of the walk, you get it stamped and you don’t go below (hell) and you don’t wait at purgatory. You got right to the gates.”

Having only committed to 11 days, Bradley knows “I’ve got a long way to go,” but she vows to return and pick up her trail to finish the pilgrimage. “I’m going to get my passport in full,” she said.

What ignited the motivation? Golf has been her life, it is who she is, and having played on three Solheim Cup teams and captained another, Bradley more than anyone in her family embraced the celebratory occasion of Keegan’s Ryder Cup dream-come-true.

“He went to the 1999 Ryder Cup and sat on his father’s shoulders,” Bradley said. “He has wanted this for a long time, so for him to have realized his dream is beyond words. I am so proud of him. I prayed for him every day.”

But that is his dream and she felt she could be there in spirit. Spiritually, though, she needed to physically be somewhere else, for reasons that she knows are understood by her brothers and nephew. For her entire golf life, Bradley had considered herself an underdog, someone who had to constantly prove herself. Never feeling she was blessed the greatest talent, she embraced a work ethic and dogged determination – even when Graves’ disease settled in – that carried her to 31 wins and six majors, including three in the 1986 season. Never, however, did she think she did it alone.

“I always heard a voice telling me, ‘Let’s go. Let’s hang on.’ I always felt I had a guardian angel on my shoulder. So I wanted to get back to my faith.”

If that perpetual “underdog” flame sounds similar to what fuels her nephew’s drive, then Pat Bradley can take even greater joy. Keegan has stated on a number of occasions that his aunt has always been his greatest influence and now he’s got something to make him even more proud of her.

“The movie’s a movie,” she said. “But I tread on the real path.”

The path still awaits, too, for her return.

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