PACIFIC PALISADES, CALIFORNIA | The mirrors were taped to the sides of the car, a Ford Focus. “They fell off too much,” Keegan Bradley remembered.
Not what you want to make an impression at Augusta National. Or even at the Subway sandwich shop down the street.
Bradley’s mode of transportation is better now. It should be. He won the PGA Championship last August, as a rookie. Sunday he came within a whisker of winning at Riviera. The man can play.
He was tied with Phil Mickelson for first place three rounds into the Northern Trust Open. The man can impress.
“I really like Keegan,” was Mickelson’s observation. “He’s a great player, and I think a lot of him … I think he’s a tremendous talent.”
That is understood. Bradley won a major, then won PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. That will get you a lot of places.
Who knew? Not Bradley, back in 2009, or was it 2008, he parked that Ford Focus off Washington Road across from the inaccessible heaven of Augusta National.
Bradley was on the Hooters Tour, minor leagues, playing in McCormick, S.C, some 40 miles from Augusta. So close. So far.
“I had an early tee time,” said Bradley, “and I decided to drive up and see Augusta.”
He saw Augusta, not Augusta National, until a week- and-a-half ago when, eligible for the 2012 Masters, Keegan, along with his father, Mark, a teaching pro, made an official visit.
They played a few practice rounds and loaded up buying those shirts and hats with the logo that has an outline of the United States with a flagstick poking up from about where Augusta, Georgia is located.
Different than the first time when he had his Subway sandwich, his view of the Augusta National gate and his unfulfilled dreams.
“I was just eating and staring down Magnolia Lane,” he said of the historic entranceway, which leads to the clubhouse, “and ready to rip my hair out of my head.
“I remember people watching people go up to the gate and talk to the guard and drive in, and I was imagining what that feeling must be like to be allowed into Augusta.”
The approval was almost as satisfying as the arrival.
“Getting to the gate,’’ Bradley offered, “and having the officer look and say, ‘Yep, you guys can go,’ was the coolest.”
It’s been a fantastic, bewildering, rewarding, gratifying few months for Bradley. A year ago, in the second round of the Northern Trust, he three-putted the 18th green at Riviera and missed the cut by a shot.
“I was so devastated,” he recalled. “I specifically remember missing this cut because I love this course so much, and how bummed out I was. I have come a long way. It doesn’t seem like a year ago. It seems like five years ago.
“I had the next week off, and I sulked the whole week. Much better feeling this time.”
Bradley and Mickelson, head to head, the kid, if the kid with style, class and élan – along with that major – against Phil the Mick, who days earlier won at Pebble, his 40th title, beating Tiger, beating everyone else.
“You have to try your best not to watch Phil,” said Bradley. He was determined to stay competitor, not spectator, although it’s never easy to ignore the great ones, and Mickelson has in the opening weeks of 2012 reaffirmed his status as great.
“I promise you,” Bradley said before they teed off, “I do want to beat Phil, and he wants to beat me. He could shoot really low. I’ve played with him. I’ve hung out with him, and I feel more comfortable this year playing in the final group than last year.”
Bradley is one of the bright, young individuals in golf, the American who slashed through the stretch of six straight major victories by the South Africans and Brits and Germans and Irish. Just when it didn’t seem anyone from the U.S. would ever again find room at the top, here came this unflappable young man from New England.
“You can be very relaxed around him,” Mickelson said of Bradley, with whom he shares agent representation. “You can rough him up a little bit, and he’ll give it right back. I enjoy being around him.”
Bradley grew up as a ski racer before switching to golf full time. He has a sense of humor and a sense of purpose. As is well known, he went to St. John’s University in Queens, and nobody thinks of playing golf in New York City. Well, Keegan Bradley does.
There’s a statue of Ben Hogan alongside the upper practice green at Riviera, where Hogan won two L.A. Opens and one U.S. Open. This time Bradley lost on the second hole of a three-man playoff with Mickelson, won by Bill Haas.
“My dad kind of beat that history of Hogan into me,” said Bradley. “(Riviera) is one of those courses that even though you haven’t played you can feel the history, see the (pictures of) the past champions in the locker room.”
Not all that different from Augusta National, except at Riviera there’s no Subway across the road, just multi-million dollar mansions.