Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Bradley scores first PGA win

Keegan Bradley needed some cowbell.

As Bradley walked down the 18th fairway during a playoff at the Byron Nelson Championship on Sunday in Dallas, he began to realize he was about to get his first PGA Tour win. That’s when Bradley started getting emotional thinking about the cowbell.

The one that is in the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla. The one his grandmother rang after every win by his famous aunt, LPGA Tour great Pat Bradley, whose 31 victories included six majors.

“It was like, ‘Pull it together. Don’t start thinking about the cowbell,’ ” Keegan Bradley told reporters after the tournament. “The cowbell in my family is an iconic thing.”

Bradley settled himself and won the Byron Nelson Championship, parring the first hole of a playoff with Ryan Palmer on Sunday.

Bradley, son of Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club golf pro Mark Bradley, spent three summers living in the valley while he was a student at St. John’s University. In that time, he won the 2006 Wyoming State Amateur title and the 2007 Wyoming Match play title.

While Bradley was orchestrating a dramatic finish in Dallas on Sunday, father Mark was joined by friends at the Golf & Tennis Club watching on TV.

“It was very exciting. Everyone was going crazy,” Mark Bradley said. “Some people had tears in their eyes. It was so exciting. The whirlwind going on around the club, the phone ringing off the hook, text messages and emails. ... This is bigger than I thought.”

It’s big. Really big. Sunday’s win gives Bradley a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour, and an automatic berth to the 2012 Masters.

“For me, it’s just amazing to think he’s going to play at the Masters, which is the ultimate event in the sport,” Mark Bradley said.

Bradley also pocketed $1.1 million with the win, boosting his 2011 earnings on the PGA Tour to $1.7 million. It was an early birthday present for Bradley, who turns 25 on June 7.

“I’m speechless,” he said. “I’m so proud of the way I played, and I’m so proud to win Byron Nelson’s tournament. That’s an amazing thing for me.”

Bradley sealed the win when he sank a 2-foot par putt at the 419-yard 18th hole in the playoff. Palmer, meanwhile, hit his approach into the water before he sank a 13-foot bogey putt.

The win was a breakout victory for Bradley, who never even won an event while on the Nationwide Tour. He looked forward to talking to his aunt.

“She is a lot calmer on the golf course than she is watching me. I’m sure she was by the TV going crazy,” Bradley said. “I talk to her regularly through text messages and phone calls about tournaments and what it’s like to come down near the end. ... This is the closest thing we ever had in common in terms of playing.”

About an hour before the playoff, Bradley finished his closing round of 2-under 68 with a par at No. 18, dropping into a squat and hopping a few times in frustration when his 10-foot birdie chance slid by the hole.

Palmer (72) and Bradley finished at 3-under 277, the highest winning score on the PGA Tour this year — and the highest in relation to par in a non-major since 1999. It was the fifth playoff in six weeks and 10th overall.

Players were buffeted by winds gusting to 40 miles per hour both Saturday and Sunday.

Palmer forced the extra hole with a 6-foot putt at No. 18 for only the second birdie there all day. When that putt dropped, Palmer punched his right fist in the air and then raised both arms over his head.

Bradley and Palmer then played No. 18 again, both going way right with their tee shots to start the playoff.

Tournament volunteers quickly dismantled and moved a temporary lemonade stand to give Bradley a line of sight to the green and to avoid the necessity for a drop.

Bradley’s approach was dangerously close to sliding off the side of the green into the water, but it stayed up. Palmer went in the same direction, but his ball didn’t stay dry.

“I had a clear punch shot, but it’s so easy to hit it left when I’m trying to hit a punch like that, and it squared left a little bit,” he told reporters. “Then my putt — just wanted to tease myself a little more, I guess — but I got into the position to win the golf tournament and that’s all I can ask for.”

On the 172-yard 17th hole, Bradley sank a 12-foot par-saving putt and responded with an emphatic fist pump.

After Bradley tapped in his par putt at No. 18, third-round leader Palmer was in one of the five groups still playing.

Bradley then sat for a few minutes before going to the practice range to prepare for a playoff that almost wasn’t necessary for him to become the PGA Tour’s sixth first-time winner this season.

“It was funny. I was really, really nervous, and then, when [Palmer] made the birdie, I calmed way down,” Bradley said. “I felt my heartbeat slow down. I calmed down.”

Bradley said the feeling of winning as an underdog was rewarding.

“I would be lying if I said it wasn’t,” he said. “It’s great to be the underdog and come out on top, for sure.”

Bradley said he set several goals for himself for his first year on the tour and one of them was winning an event. He knows that, now he has a win on his resume, his golfing career and his life will likely change.

“It only can change for the better now,” he said.

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