As a PGA Tour rookie, Keegan Bradley wasn’t sure if he would play the 2011 HP Byron Nelson Championship until his caddie convinced him to change his schedule.
His arrival at the TPC Four Seasons at Las Colinas had as much pomp and ceremony as a guy without his reserved parking spot could have hope for. Since a car was in his space, he wheeled into the next one available, No. 1.
When Bradley makes his return this week, he will have the same spot. He earned that with his first victory.
But that’s one of the few things in Bradley’s life that haven’t changed. The Nelson victory, in a playoff over Ryan Palmer, spurred Bradley to a dream season.
Brimming with confidence and armed with the security of locking up his playing card for two years, Bradley went from first-time winner to first-time major winner. He won the PGA Championship and was selected PGA Tour Player of the Year.
``The Nelson win was huge,’’ Bradley said recently. ``Especially for it to come at a tournament like that, it was great. I think that’s what got me started. It got my confidence going, and that’s big on the PGA Tour.’’
The Nelson victory began a streak of strong play that Bradley carried through 2011 and into this season.
Bradley finished his rookie season with two wins, four top-10s and 17 top-25s. He earned $3,758,600 and was 20th in the FedEx Cup standings.
He has become a consistent contender, finishing in the top 25, including three top-10s, in nine of his first 10 starts of 2012. His world ranking has hovered around 20th.
``My biggest goal to start the year was to be in contention every time I played pretty much,’’ Bradley said. ``I'm having so much more fun when I'm in contention, and I enjoy myself a lot more out there. The fact that I've been in contention means that I'm playing good golf.’’
Bradley was brimming with anonymity at last year’s Nelson despite posting two top-10s in his first 15 starts.
He shot 66 in the first round at the TPC Four Seasons and then after rounds of 71-72 in windy conditions, he entered the final round tied for eighth.
Paired with amateur Jordan Spieth, who attracted the largest gallery contending in his hometown event, Bradley was largely ignored as he steadily climbed the board en route to a 68.
``On the 10th hole, he hit one to about 6 feet and there was a huge ovation, and I hit mine to about 2 inches, and there was two claps, and we're thinking did it go long, is it short?’’ Bradley said afterward. ``It was definitely different, a smaller version of playing with Tiger (Woods) or Phil (Mickelson). … It was actually a little bit relieving and he was a great kid -- couldn't have had a better pairing.’’
After Palmer birdied the 72nd hole to force a playoff, Bradley sprayed his drive on 18 into the right woods. Palmer, who had launched a perfect drive to set up his 6-foot birdie putt just moments earlier, hit driver instead of playing safe. His ball sailed right, too, settling near a tree.
After marshals moved a concessions cart to clear a narrow flight path, Bradley sent a low hook under the branches. The ball bounced left and came to rest on the green collar, just inches from rolling down the bank and into the pond.
Palmer's shot bounced into the water, leaving Bradley with two putts from 50 feet for the win.
``It was a great shot, probably the shot of my life,’’ Bradley said. ``It just so happened that I pulled it off and was able to win the tournament.’’
By carving out par from the trees, Bradley stamped his ticket to his first major, the PGA Championship.
Even so, he didn’t need a police escort to fight off crowds at Atlanta Athletic Club. He was still somewhat wide-eyed contending with the world’s best.
``The worst one is when you sign an autograph and the kid looks at you and asks you what your name is,’’ Bradley told reporters at the PGA, where he defeated Jason Dufner in a playoff.
Bradley may still be best known as the nephew of LPGA great Pat Bradley, a World Golf Hall of Fame member. He often consults her for advice.
The son of a PGA of America professional from Woodstock, Vt., Bradley used to pick up balls on the driving range. As a pro, he doesn’t clamor for glamour.
His hobbies include watching sports, fly fishing and ``I can juggle a little bit.’’ He grew up idolizing the Red Sox, Celtics and Patriots, and still does.
Bradley seems too busy as a fan to play the star. He said he didn’t feel much different starting 2012 as a two-time winner compared with the year before, when his primary goal was keeping his Tour card.
``Throughout my career I've kind of gone under the radar, and I've always had to kind of prove myself,’’ he said at the start of this season. ``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.’’
He said he sought advice from Mickelson and other veterans about dealing with the distractions accompanying a major victory.
When Bradley arrives at the Nelson this week, he will find that not much has changed, at least in terms of his parking spot.
``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,’’ he said. ``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.’’