LAKE FOREST, Ill. — Keegan Bradley never knew what he was missing. He played in all of the major championships for five consecutive years because he managed to win the first one in which he ever teed it up.
That afforded the kind of freedom golfers dream about, the knowledge that no matter how far things go askew in a game filled with myriad obstacles, you’ll still be standing on the first tee at Augusta National or St. Andrews or wherever the game’s biggest tournaments take you.
And why would he think that would ever change?
Bradley won three times in his first two years on the PGA Tour. He climbed as high as No. 10 in the world. He played in the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup.
And then his game started to slip — in part due to the anchored putting ban — and soon he was watching those tournaments that he expected to never miss.
“It stinks; it’s no fun,” Bradley said Thursday after a first-round 65 at the BMW Championship, where he trails first-round leader Marc Leishman by three strokes and needs a good result to advance to next week’s Tour Championship. “No fun watching majors at home, no fun watching Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups at home. You start feeling bad for yourself.”
Bradley played in just two majors this year and fell to 120th in the world rankings after a tie for 60th at the U.S. Open.
The Masters this year was particularly bad. It was the first time he failed to qualify for a major since he won the 2011 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club. Bradley, 31, captured that tournament in a playoff over Jason Dufner, becoming just the second player in 98 years to win a major in his first attempt.
“That was awful,” he said of not playing at Augusta National. “I would normally go up early and practice and play a little bit. That was always super fun for me. I wasn’t allowed, couldn’t go. So that was tough. Watching the Ryder Cup [last year], I was excited for them [the U.S. winning], but that was tough to watch as well.
“It’s motivation to play better. Only I can fix that.”
Bradley had a poor stretch in 2016 that in many ways was related to the anchored putting ban that went into effect at the start of that year. Bradley had used a belly putter since playing college golf at St. John’s, and winning a major with it helped stir the debate over whether being able to anchor the club to the body should be legal.
Ultimately, the governing bodies decided to make an unprecedented rule change that did not ban the club but the way it was used. Not surprisingly, Bradley struggled. He was well outside of the top 100 in every major statistical putting category.
“It was tougher than I thought, but I was going through stuff with my game as well where I was working on that, so I couldn’t focus on one thing long enough,” he said. “Now I feel like I’m not working on anything; I’m just trying to work on going up there and shooting low numbers and win tournaments.”
Bradley has not missed a cut in nine events since the Memorial, with two top-10s. He has not contended recently, but Bradley has done well enough to climb to 95th in the world and 48th in the FedEx Cup standings.
And that is why a big week here could really do him some good. Short of getting into the top 50 in the world rankings by the end of the year — and he plans to play a heavy fall schedule before the birth of his first child in his November — or winning a tournament, being in the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings after the BMW Championship, thus making next week’s Tour Championship, will allow him to play in all the 2018 majors.
The Masters, U.S. Open and The Open all give exemptions to players who qualify for the previous year’s Tour Championship. Bradley likely needs a top-five finish this week to make it.
“We all go through highs and lows in this game,” said Phil Mickelson, a frequent practice round partner of Bradley’s who is also vying to make the Tour Championship. “He and I have been on a stretch where we are not playing our best and we are close to getting it back. I can see it in his game. I can feel it in my game, and I really enjoy playing in the team events with him.
“I really want to be on the Ryder Cup team next year, I want him to be on the Ryder Cup next year and I just sent him a little text, ‘Hey, let’s have a special week, we’re close, we’re playing well, let’s put it together this week.’ Because his upside, his potential as a player is as high as just about anybody.”
Bradley acknowledged that several veteran players have offered encouragement while he struggled.
He noted Mickelson’s text, which came on Wednesday night. He said Ernie Els had reached out to him recently.
“I definitely appreciated it,” Bradley said. “It all happened so fast it was hard for me to take it all in.”
It’s only one round, but Bradley has given himself a chance to extend his season. His 65 included seven birdies and a single bogey. He made a good 7-footer to save par at the 16th, the kind of putt that had been giving him fits.
On Thursday, it went in. He then birdied the last two holes.
“I put so much work in at home, the last thing I want to do is hit more balls on the range or spend more time on the putting green,” he said. “I just want to be out here. A lot of cool stuff can happen if you do well out here. So I’m in a playing mode. I’m going to hopefully not take next week off.”