Bradley comes of age post-PGA win

On Tuesday night, Keegan Bradley hosted the champion's dinner at the PGA Championship in Kiawah Island, S.C. The 26-year-old Woodstock, Vt., native served Maine lobster with filet, corn on the cob and ice cream sundaes. He was surrounded by all of his idols -- Phil Mickelson, Tiger Woods and probably most of the 13 past Wanamaker Trophy winners in the field this week at Pete Dye's Ocean Course.

It's easy to imagine Bradley watching his heroes eat from his New England menu with the wide-eyed satisfaction of a young man having his first beer with the older kids on the block.

A year after that life-changing weekend in Atlanta, Bradley is a very different player from the one who won the PGA Championship in his first appearance in a major. He's now an accepted member of the tour elite with a certain roster spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team that will face off against the European squad in September at Medinah. His come-from-behind win last week in Akron was more assurance that he could elevate his game under big-time pressure.

"[The PGA] definitely changed the way I look at myself as a player, not as a person, but as a player," Bradley said Tuesday. "I realize that I get an opportunity to do some pretty special things.

"I realize that I can stand up and play well under the pressure of a major championship, and that means I can play well in tournaments to win."

Yet Bradley's greatest asset might be that he's still that starstruck kid trying to prove that he belongs on the PGA Tour. He's still the son of a middlebrow club pro that played his college golf at St. John's in Queens, N.Y., overshadowed by just about everybody in the amateur game. He's still the fella who dared to peek through the fence of Augusta National on his way to some Carolina mini-tour event in a battered Ford Focus long before he got a chance to play the Masters. He's still that fan who can talk about Mickelson as though he were simply eternalized on a baseball card and not a real colleague on the PGA Tour.

"It's an honor to be in that younger group of guys out here that's kind of making a move," Bradley said. "I've always felt like I should be in that category, growing up with guys like Rickie [Fowler] and Rory [McIlroy], and I just wasn't quite there. And I'm finally in that conversation now."

Bradley has as many majors as McIlroy and more tour wins than Fowler. With three victories in almost two full seasons on tour so far, Bradley could have a better career than these two players and everybody else in the conversation about the present crop of good young players.

It's an understandable human and professional need for him to want to be included among the most talented of his generation, but Bradley doesn't need acceptance into an in crowd. He should keep reminding himself of his deep roots as the under-the-radar player who sometimes takes too long to play his shots.

Whether it was during the Northern Trust Open earlier this year, where he couldn't control his spitting, or at the Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, where he allegedly took five minutes to hit a shot, you know you're watching a man at work when Bradley is on the course.

With Bradley there isn't the air of cool that comes with McIlroy or that irresistible flair of Fowler. When Bradley stands behind the ball during his pre-shot routine, he gives the impression with his eyes and body that he's looking down a dark, narrow tunnel, and that he has to see light on the other side before he plays his shot. But it works for him.

It also works for him to hold on to his humble roots. On Tuesday he talked about what it meant for him to be that overlooked guy.

"In my head, I still am," Bradley said. "I think in my head, I'll always think that. You think when you get here, you're going to get on tour and you won and you can just relax. Once you do that, it gets even harder."

As the defending champion this week at Kiawah Island, Bradley won't be overlooked, especially after his win in Akron. It's hard to look past his preparedness for the 7,676-yard Ocean Course. Under pressure, he can hit driver as well anyone else on tour.

"This is a course that you must drive the ball straight and long and well because the rough is brutal, the course is long, and if you hit it in the fairway, you're going to have some good looks at birdies, very similar to Firestone," Bradley said. "And I feel like when it's a challenging driving course, it's a good course for me."

Bradley will certainly need to have a great driving week on the Ocean Course. But he'll give himself the best chance of succeeding if he brings that same excitement, freshness and wonder at playing in a major championship that catapulted him to the top of the game last year in Atlanta.

On Tuesday, he said that Mickelson was the kind of player that he wanted to be someday.

"I think Phil is a very hard worker, very serious about his game, but also comes and hangs out and has a match with me last year when I hadn't won yet," Bradley said. "I was a nobody out here, and it's a pretty cool thing to be like that."

And as he probably will learn more in the coming years, it's also a pretty cool thing to beat your heroes in the biggest tournaments, then sit around and talk about it with them over some of your favorite foods.