Keegan Bradley: Just living the dream

NORTON, Mass. -- The unlikely new face of New England golf -- and perhaps, in this Tiger-less PGA Tour landscape starving for American stars, of the sport itself --- is poised on the lip of the Red Sox's dugout on a beautiful Tuesday afternoon in Boston. It's an hour and a half before Game 1 of an August homestand against the Yankees, and the seats are still for the most part vacant. The golfer, 9-iron thin and with black, curly hair spilling out from under a Red Sox cap, is staring out into the green maw of The Monster. "This is unbelievable," Keegan Bradley, PGA Tour rookie and major champion, is saying.

He's here to fulfill a lifelong dream -- throwing out the first pitch at Fenway, part of the Deutsche Bank Championship's weeklong cross-pollination with the local baseball club. It's one of many such dreams Bradley has checked off during a whirlwind month since his come-from-behind win at the PGA Championship in Atlanta. This isn't his first time at the park -- the Woodstock, Vt., native is a rabid Boston sports fan who earlier this summer received an invitation to hang out on the field and watch batting practice after rocketing onto the local sports scene with his win at the Byron Nelson Championship in May -- but it's certainly his first time taking the mound, this mound, with the Fenway lights ablaze and the seats filled and thousands of fans screaming his name. But he's no pitcher, this 25-year-old New England kid, just a boyish golf whiz wearing a blue Jimmy Fund polo shirt that hangs loose on his tall frame, and he's looking, on this August day in Boston, nearly nauseous with nerves.

"As soon as I pulled into the ballpark, my hands started to sweat," he is saying. "I started to get butterflies in my stomach. I practiced two days ago and I threw too long, and now my arm feels like it's going to fall off. All my boys in New England and Boston have already told me if I bounce it or throw it over [the catcher's] head, I'm never going to hear the end of it. Let's hope I throw a strike."

Bradley stands at an interesting crossroads in his golfing life, straddling a narrow chasm between relative anonymity and spectacular professional fame. On one hand, he's a major championship winner, a rising star who's all but a lock for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors. On the other hand, he's still just a small-town kid from Vermont who gets nervous walking into Fenway Park -- a greenhorn at this celebrity thing, still worried about giving clichéd answers at news conferences, still shocked whenever someone recognizes him. But if he keeps playing the way he has recently, he'd better get used to the attention. On a tour that features an ailing Phil Mickelson, a growing number of talented foreign players and a Tiger Woods-sized hole just waiting to be filled by a young American hotshot, Bradley could soon find himself standing squarely in the center of American golf.

'We always knew he was going to make it'

Growing up in Woodstock, a tiny town of 3,200 along the Ottauquechee River in Vermont, Bradley lived what his mother, Kaye, calls "a very Norman Rockwell lifestyle." His father, Mark, worked as a PGA professional at a local country club, and during the summer, a young Keegan would follow his dad to the course, clubs in hand.

"I was a lucky father in that I was able to bring my son with me to work every single day and just have him there," Mark says. "And he was such a good kid, I gotta tell you. I never had to kick him out of the pro shop. He never did anything to get me in trouble. All he did was just practice, practice, play, play, play."

When Keegan wasn't golfing with Dad or with his aunt, LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, he was skiing with Mom, racing down Vermont slopes with enough skill to harbor a realistic dream of one day competing for the U.S. Ski Team in the Olympics. But on one especially frigid New England day, strapped to skis and freezing at the top of a mountain, a teenaged Bradley decided his future was in golf. After that, his dad says, it was all but impossible to get him off the course.

"He just has such a joy for the game, more than anyone I know," Mark says. "I even said to him a few times, 'Keegan, why don't you take today off and just go and do other stuff, go hang out around town, just do something else?' And finally one day -- I'll never forget it -- he just said, 'Dad, do me a favor: Don't say that anymore, because that's not what I want to do. I want to come with you and play golf.' And I said 'OK,' and that was that."

When Keegan was a teenager, his parents split up and Mark moved to Hopkinton, Mass., to be the assistant pro at Hopkinton Country Club. When Keegan was 17, he followed his dad to Hopkinton, enrolling in Hopkinton High School for his senior year and joining the golf team. There he met Jon Curran, the team's No. 1 player and a top-ranked junior golfer. The two became good friends and together went on to win the Division II state championship in the fall of 2003.

"It was in Beverly, Mass.," Keegan says of the state final. "I shot 69 and we won. I won individually, and our team won by 21 shots. I had Jon on my team, who was an All-American and went to Vanderbilt on a full scholarship. I also had Kim Donovan on my team, who went to Duke on a full scholarship. I always say my high school team my senior year was better than my college team my freshman year. We were really, really good."

Bradley's coach at Hopkinton High, Dick Bliss, remembers his now-famous pupil as a quiet, hardworking young man who could hit the ball a mile but was content to exist in the shadow of the more nationally known Curran.

"You have to remember that Jon was one of the best players in the state," Bliss says. "Keegan didn't win a lot of junior golf championships. He was always kind of an underdog. But he practiced so hard. He was always out on the range, and if he wasn't on the range, he was on the putting green."

Still, Bliss says, whenever the two talked about golf, Bradley would remind his coach that someday he would make it big.

"He would always say, 'You know, Coach, I'm going to be really good one day,' Bliss says. "And there was no doubt in my mind. I'd tell him, 'I know you're going to do really well one day.' And he sure did."

From Hopkinton, Bradley went on to St. John's University in Queens, N.Y. He was recruited by several Southern schools, Bliss says, but chose St. John's -- not typically regarded as a high-profile golf school -- because of its close proximity to Bethpage Black, host of two U.S. Opens. Bradley says the continued time out of the national golf spotlight helped fuel his dedication.

"Part of my DNA is a little bit of a chip on my shoulder," he says. "And with St. John's, no one thought a professional golfer was going to come out of there. And living in Queens, well, Queens has a little chip on its shoulder, too. It's all a part of who I am, and if you take St. John's and those four years out, I probably wouldn't be here."

After St. John's came one-year stints on the Hooters and Nationwide tours, where Bradley played well enough in 2010 to earn his PGA Tour card for 2011. After that, Mark Bradley says, "Everything happened so fast."

"I went to the first PGA event that Keegan was in, at the Sony Open in Hawaii," Mark says, "because I wanted to hear his name on the first tee: 'Keegan Bradley, Woodstock, Vt.' And I heard that, and it was emotional, it was wonderful. Keegan even said he got emotional walking down the fairway, because he's thinking, 'Here I go. This is it.' Then I went to the Bob Hope Classic, where he tied for seventh, won a nice check. And then Torrey Pines [for the Farmers Insurance Open], where he birdied the last three holes. Then, after Riviera [the Northern Trust Open, where Bradley missed the cut], I went back to work. Then Keegan won the Byron Nelson Championship, and then -- well, you know what happened after that."

What happened after that is now the stuff of legend: Bradley, staring down a 5-stroke deficit late Sunday at the PGA Championship, rallied back from a triple-bogey on the 15th hole to tie a fading Jason Dufner after 72 regulation holes, then went birdie-par-par in the playoff to win the whole thing, just the third player to win a major championship in his first attempt.

For Bliss, watching at home in Massachusetts, Bradley's comeback topped them all.

"I've seen some great comebacks," Bliss says. "I saw the Red Sox in 2004 come back from three games down to beat the Yankees, but Keegan coming back from 5 shots down to win the PGA takes the all-time comeback in my book."

Kaye was there at the course in Atlanta with Bradley's younger sister Madison and her 10-month-old son, Aiden, whom Keegan calls his good luck charm. Mark Bradley watched the final round on TV, deciding at the last minute to stay home to avoid potentially upsetting the chemistry of his son's magical run. When the playoff ended and his son punched the air with two triumphant fists, Mark says he was surprisingly composed.

"I don't know," he says. "Maybe it's because I'm getting older, but I've been pretty relaxed with this whole thing. It's what Keegan has wanted since he was a little boy, and you know, his mom and I feel like we've raised him right. He's a modest kid. He came from modest means. This wasn't a surprise to us. He's a very fine golfer, and I've known it since he was a little boy."

Kaye adds, "I think we always knew he was going to make it."

Getting used to instant fame

Now, nearly a month after his PGA victory, Bradley stands on the Fenway Park dirt, 140 miles and a world away from Woodstock, Vt., waiting for play-by-play announcer Don Orsillo to call him to the mound. The seats are filled now, and Bradley is nervously fidgeting by the Red Sox's dugout. He is 14th in the FedEx Cup standings going into the Deutsche Bank Championship this weekend at TPC Boston. He is the 29th-ranked golfer in the world. He is a major champion, and, having won more than $3.4 million in 2011, he is rich. But with the spotlight looming, he's holding tighter than ever to his New England roots.

"I'm so proud of my New England heritage," he says. "I'm just a small-town kid who got a good chance."

Here at Fenway, standing under the glare of stadium lights on the cusp of overwhelming fame, Bradley looks every inch the awestruck New England kid he swears he is.

"I'm feeling good, man," he is saying, warming up his arm for the first pitch. "Other than the fact that I feel like I'm going to fall over."

Just then, Orsillo comes on the PA.

"Tonight we are joined by a rising star in the world of golf," he booms.

"Here we go," Bradley says. He pulls his Sox cap snug on his head, takes a deep breath and, as a national audience cheers, he jogs out into the lights.

Tom Lakin is covering this week's Deutsche Bank Championship for ESPNBoston.com.