St. John's 2008 graduate Keegan Bradley has become one of golf's best American players, just two years into his career.
Five shots back with three holes to play. A rookie was competing in his first major championship of his young career. The tournament leader he was chasing seemed unfazed by the week's pressures.
All of the sudden, everything turned. After birdieing the 16th and 17th, along with scoring an impressive par on the difficult 18th, one sparingly-known lanky golfer stepped up on golf's brightest stage. Fans were exhilarated by the familiar emotional outbursts of a man sporting his usual Sunday red.
But it wasn't Tiger Woods. It was Keegan Bradley.
The 2008 St. John's University graduate came roaring back to win the PGA Championship, the year's fourth and final major, in a three-hole aggregate playoff over Jason Dufner. Even though he had already won earlier in 2011 at the HP Byron Nelson and was named the Tour's rookie of the year, not many could have differentiated Bradley from anyone else walking along a city street.
Now, just a year later, Keegan Bradley has become one of America's top golfers. He won for the first time in 2012 this past weekend - again, in incredible come-from-behind fashion - at the WGC Bridgestone Invitational, a strong tournament with a major-like global field. People have quickly come to know the native New Englander and diehard Boston sports fan, and they seriously believe he could threat to defend his PGA title this week.
More, below the fold.
It actually makes perfect sense as to why Keegan Bradley had gone generally unnoticed by the public before his big breakthrough a year ago. Growing up in Woodstock, Vermont (population of roughly 3,000), he may have been a more talented skier than he was a golfer.
In fact, Bradley's golf coach at Hopkinton High School in Massachusetts, Dick Bliss, claims that the eventual PGA champion was only the third-most coveted recruit on his own team. Not many of the top college programs in America gave Bradley any serious consideration, so he chose to stay in the Northeast and play at St. John's.
It's not like college golf gets much national attention, even on the highest of levels. But St. John's? In Queens, New York? You join the Red Storm to play basketball, baseball, or soccer. Not golf.
But Bradley did so anyway, and excelled under the radar. As a junior in 2007, he led the Red Storm to an NCAA regional - something the program hadn't done in many years prior and hasn't done since. Even so, it wasn't until four years after he was at St. John's did he put the golf program in national headlines.
"There's a different level of respect in the Northeast for us," Red Storm golf coach Frank Darby told Golfweek in January. "His success has helped recruiting a bit, and it shows we do things differently up here."
Sure, Bradley is indirectly providing benefits for his alma mater. But everyone knows that golf is an individual sport. By winning the PGA Championship and, now, the Bridgestone, he is building the foundation for great things both currently and in the future.
Sunday's win catapulted Bradley to fourth in the Ryder Cup point standings. Being that, at season's end, the top eight get automatic invitations to this September's team, the second-year pro has placed himself in fantastic position to get his first chance to represent the United States in golf's biennial tournament against the reigning champion Europeans.
"It's a couple different emotions. Now [after winning last week], I'm not as worried about the Ryder Cup," Bradley said on Tuesday. "Any time you win, you feel a little less pressure. But, at the same time, there's a lot more pressure."
Coming into this week's PGA Championship, which will be held at the spectacular Ocean Course at Kiawah Island (SC), Keegan is viewed as one of the field's favorites. His odds are just as good as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlroy, or Bubba Watson.
The Ocean Course will provide a difficult test for any golfer with swirling coastline winds, rolling fairways, sandy hazards, and undulating greens. Ten of the eighteen holes sit directly on the Atlantic Ocean. But the target golf set-up fits Bradley's aggressive and fearless game.
Bradley has been criticized by some for his use of a "belly" or "anchored" putter, which clearly helps a golfer create a steady fulcrum while putting. Different from the classic putting style, the belly putter makes a virtual pendulum and may even provide a slight advantage. A legal advantage, at that.
But he ran into a bit of an obstacle on Tuesday, when his putter of the last two and a half years became damaged when Bradley was casually using it as a walking aid on a fairway during a practice round at the Ocean Course. Though he plans to use the same shaft only with a new putter head this week, he claims the adjustment will be smooth and faint.
Keegan Bradley is both the reigning PGA champion and this week's reigning Tour winner, therefore his confidence couldn't be any higher. "I'm playing well, I'm coming back to the PGA, and I want to defend my title," he assured.
It isn't that long ago that Bradley shared an apartment with his friends he made at St. John's, when he was often the target of the group's back-and-forth humor. He no longer has to worry if congratulatory texts from his idol Tom Brady are actually his buddies pulling pranks.
He can now expect to hear from Brady, Bill Belichick, Steve Lavin, or David Ortiz when he accomplishes something great.
And now, it isn't just he, his coaches, and his St. John's teammates who know what he is capable of. It's the entire golf world.