Keegan Bradley won the PGA Championship in his rookie year. He also won the Byron Nelson in Dallas earlier in the year. As a rookie…oh yeah, I said that already. When you see something as dazzling as Bradley’s Rookie of the Year performance, it’s easy to become, well, bedazzled. He got a two-year exemption for winning the Nelson and then he super-sized it with the five years he got for the major. So you might think that he would be tempted to sit on his laurels for a while. You’d be wrong:
It’s been a great year, but I’m ready to put that behind me and start over again this year.
“Start over again,” as in, “I’m not really that good and I have to continue to prove myself.”
He’s in Maui, Hawaii, this week for the Hyundai Tournament of Champions played on the Plantation course at the Kapalua Resort. Next week is the Sony in Honolulu and he reflected back on his maiden voyage on the Tour:
I was getting ready to head to Sony, and I was flipping out that I was starting my PGA Tour career, and I was a mess. I was so uptight about it. I was just nervous about starting the year and getting on to my first ever PGA Tour event. At this time last year, I wasn’t thinking about this tournament at all, I was thinking about how I wasn’t ready to play on the Tour, how I needed to practice 12 hours a day to get ready. So it’s pretty remarkable to be here.
This is quite interesting because it brilliantly demonstrates the truism that “it’s always darkest just before the dawn.” When we look back on it, we realize how silly we were not to have trusted ourselves. We have rich, warm laughs with friends and family and marvel over how far we ended up having come. (For Bradley, he finished T68 and won $10,395. The following week at the Hope, he finished T7 and won $150,625. Whatever was he worried about?)
But we very rarely are so relaxed and sanguine while we’re going through the crucible. It is nice to motivate yourself with high energy and unflagging enthusiasm, but would you beat yourself up so much over mistakes if you knew that it was all going to work out in the end? Of course not.
So if you can shift your perspective from the grind you’re enduring in the moment to the future you see as inevitable and operate out of that inevitably, you draw your vision to yourself with a little less drama. It’s not like you avoid the slings and arrows of any great undertaking. But if you operate as if it’s all fait accompli, it’s far easier to endure them.
So it will be interesting to see if Bradley’s intention to revert to the past rather than operating out of the satisfaction and empowerment that comes with his accomplishment will pan out. He doesn’t seem to have any doubt about his approach:
Nobody puts higher expectations [on me] than myself. This is what gets a lot of players in trouble. I still need to have that mentality that I had last year of trying to keep my card, trying to be a rookie and have that chip on my shoulder. The moment you relax a little bit I think is when you don’t play as well. So I’m trying to keep the same attitude I’ve had since I was five years old, and hopefully that’ll keep me going.
Yeah, I think that what happens sometimes is players get comfortable. You know, you might have a two-year exemption or whatever it is. You don’t have to worry about keeping your card. To me that’s what keeps players working hard is the thought of losing their job. For me personally, I don’t take a year or any tournament for granted out on the PGA Tour. I grew up having to work for everything.
So I think the biggest thing for me is to continue to be hungry and have that mentality, like I said, of just keeping my card, and that I’ve got to work hard, that I’m not good enough, stuff like that. That keeps pushing you to play better.
So one of the media guys presented the synopsis that Bradley was trying to motivate himself by acknowledging that he was, indeed, the PGA champion, but that he wasn’t really that good.
Yeah. You know, I know what you mean. That is true, but I’ve kind of always had that throughout my whole career. I’ve kind of gone under the radar, and I’ve always had to kind of prove myself. I swear to you, still in the back of my mind, I still think I’ve got a lot to prove, a lot to play for. Some days I forget what I’ve done, and then I realize that I’m only a second-year player on Tour. I look at a guy like Steve Stricker or these big-name guys that are out there working hard, and they don’t seem to be relaxing at all. So I just try to emulate them as much as I can.
He appears to be oblivious to the fact that with this last year of his, he’s now a “big-name guy.” And that he’s smart enough to be very observant of guys like Stricker:
I know Steve Stricker is one of the best wedge players, but I always see him working on his wedges. I try to just keep an eye on all these guys and see what they’re doing, try to copy them if I can. I think it’s a matter of improving everything. I think you can always improve.
And finally, I found it quite interesting that he’s smart enough to improve what he’s doing without changing what he’s doing:
Yeah, I’m not going to change anything. My coach, Jim McLean, is very adamant about that; don’t change. I’m just trying to fine-tune some things. And I think short game, like I said, is no matter if you’re Tiger Woods or me or a rookie, you can always improve your short game. That was my main focus in the off-season.
If you’ve spent any time on this blog, you know that I like this guy a lot. I remain fixated on his performance in the final four holes of the PGA Championship and how fiercely determined he was, even after he made a triple-bogey 6 on the par-3 15th. He got a bad break off the tee, and then bladed his chip shot across the green and into the greenside water…and then went birdie, birdie to get into and win the playoff.
I always like poring over these media room transcripts because you can frequently get keen insights from the most elite players in the world. And whether Keegan Bradley likes it or not, he’s an elite player. It will be interesting to see how he manages his perception of himself.