MEDINAH, Ill. – So, Keegan Bradley, for how long have you been scripting that act?
Floating on air perhaps 6 feet above the fairway at Medinah CC’s 18th hole, Keegan Bradley fielded the question and smiled.
“My whole life,” he said.
He floated back to earth, but only because he had an afternoon four-ball date. What had pushed him on air was a morning foursomes performance that left an indelible impression on those who witnessed. Rookie nerves? If there were any, they were gone in a split second or two, or in the time it took Bradley to absolutely shake Medinah CC with a drive so massive even his playing competitor, Phil Mickelson, was left to say, “wow.”
Though Mickelson failed to take advantage of Bradley’s 330-yard drive (and for the record, it wasn’t exactly perfect, because it might have been 8 inches from center cut), the lefthander had many more chances and oh, how he cashed in to the tune of a 4 and 3 drubbing of Europe’s previously unbeaten foursomes machine, Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald.
While he continued his Ryder Cup tradition of taking on a rookie (Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan in 2008, Dustin Johnson in 2010), never was it this comfortable for Mickelson. Not since Ron Turcotte rode Secretariat to that 31-length triumph has a jockey enjoyed such majestic ride in a sporting arena with so many spectators sharing the fun.
“He played some of the best golf and to be his partner was an awesome experience,” Mickelson said. “I love – love! – playing with this man.”
And why not? After all, Bradley helped Mickelson take down a Ryder Cup nemesis. Garcia had been 8-0-1 in this foursomes format and a personal thorn in the lefthander’s side with wins in all four previous meetings.
But none of that seemed to matter to Bradley, who took Mickelson’s tee shot at the 192-yard, par-3 second and rolled in an 18-footer to draw first blood.
Though Euros birdied the par-5 fifth to square the match and go 1 up when Mickelson and Bradley three-putted for bogey at the par-4 sixth, Bradley made sure his team didn’t lose another hole.
Another moon shot up and over trees to cut the corner on the 438-yard, par-4 ninth traveled perhaps 340 yards and left Mickelson but a half wedge in. He stuffed it to 6 feet and Bradley converted to square the match.
After Donald, who struggled mightily and never found any sort of rhythm, missed the green badly at the par-4 12th and enabled the Americans to win the hole with a par, Bradley showed his thoroughbred stature at the par-3 13th. It was set up at a whopping 249 yards, and though it plays downhill over water, it requires a massive play and Bradley delivered just that, his scintillating hybrid tee ball come to rest 12-15 feet from the hole. Mickelson converted to go 2 up and when the Americans took advantage of a sloppy European at the par-5 14th (Garcia screamed a 25-foot birdie try 5 feet strong and Garcia missed the comebacker), it was all but over.
The next hole, it was officially over, but to keep the morning theme going, Bradley finished it with an exclamation point.
“He’s just so fun, loves the game and plays with such excitement and man, can he roll the rock,” Mickelson said, stills shaking his head in wonder given the 40-foot birdie putt that Bradley had rolled home to close things out at the par-4 16th. The Crowd erupted, Mickelson punched the air with his first, and Steve “Pepsi” Hale, Bradley’s caddie, waved the flagstick as if he were signaling that it was time to start your engines.
Fact is, it took a veteran Ryder Cupper with a calm sense, Mickelson’s caddie, Jim Mackay, to remind Hale that the flagstick needed to be returned to the hole.
“I know, I know. I can’t take it as a souvenir,” Hale said, catching his emotions. “But how about that putt?”
The caddies then stood to the side of the 16th green, smiled, and watched Bradley and Mickelson bask in the spotlight, even if the lefthander insisted most of it belonged to Bradley.
Certainly, the 26-year-old from Vermont, a jumpy but dynamic kid who has embraced the role of longshot his entire career, deserved the stage, too. He had rolled in four of the team’s five birdies, he had launched the day’s most impressive tee shots, and frankly, he had stolen the morning show.
Not that it didn’t come without its bumps, which Mickelson was more than happy to point out. At the fifth, Bradley’s drive was pulled slightly left and it hit a spectator in the chest, the proof being the ripped plastic lanyard hanging over his neck.
Mickelson arrived at the scene first and apologized to the man, but said, “just so we’re clear, it wasn’t me.” After which Mackay added: “Keegan Bradley of Jupiter, Fla.”
There was good laughter, but Mickelson had to relish in what Bradley had helped bring to him. Having lost all three of his team matches in a heartbreaking Ryder Cup loss in 2010, Mickelson was on the positive side of a team match for the first time since he won in four-ball with Kim Friday afternoon at Valhalla in 2008. And you’d have to go all the way back to Saturday afternoon in 2004, a forgettable week at Oakland Hills, for the lefthander’s last foursomes win.
So, yes, this was walk that was not spoiled.
Thanks in great part to a rookie’s spectacular debut, one that had him walking on air. “It was one of the most memorable days of my life . . . so far,” Bradley said.
In other words, the story just might continue.