MEDINAH, Ill. – Topping the list of reasons why the Europeans are looking up at the Americans after the first day of the Ryder Cup is a 26-year-old spark plug named Keegan Bradley, who once slept on the kitchen table in a camper his dad nicknamed Tin Cup II.
Bradley stared down the world's No. 3-ranked player in Friday's morning alternate shot session, the world's No. 1 in the afternoon and, in one day, managed to turn Phil Mickelson's biological clock back 10 years. On a day in which Tiger Woods went winless, Bradley and Mickelson earned two points for the United States, helping the Americans to a 5-3 first-day lead of the biennial tournament they've won just once since 1999.
"His energy is so positive; it's so good," Mickeslon said. "I would say to him a couple of times I need a little pep talk, and he would give me something, get me boosted right up, and I would end up hitting a good shot."
Like at No. 13, when clinging to a tenuous one-hole lead in their match against Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia in the morning session. Standing on the elevated tee staring down at a green 245 yards away and protected in the front by Lake Kadijah, Bradley took a hard swing and …
Unlike 99.9 percent of golfers who are told to swing easy, Bradley's father, Mark, taught him to do the opposite.
"Hit the damn thing hard," Mark Bradley, a teaching pro, told him, "and we'll talk about it later."
Keegan Bradley grew up the nephew of LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, but he was hardly a prodigy. He skied more than he golfed. He didn't figure out he was really good at golf until one day during the summer of 2004 when, playing with a solid group of high schoolers, he kept bombing the ball by them.
He called it "freakish" when he got home to the camper he and his dad were living in at the time. The high schoolers begged Keegan to join them at Hopkinton (Mass.) High School. Said they'd win the state championship if he did. So Mark put Tin Cup II up for sale, they moved to Hopkinton and did exactly that – won the state championship by 21 strokes, with Keegan earning medalist honors.
Bradley's been swinging hard ever since. So when he stepped to the tee at 13, he took a hefty swing and knocked it to within 20 feet.
That put the pressure squarely on, Donald, who, as a resident of nearby Evanston, is the player who's played Medinah Country Club more than anyone on either side. Staring at Bradley's ball safely on the green, Donald, the world's No. 3 ranked player, dunked his in the water. Moments later, Mickelson knocked in the birdie putt and the Americans, down in all four morning matches early on, were two up with five holes to play.
"What a shot in there, dude!" Mickelson yelled to Bradley before slapping him on the butt.
And it was – a gutsy, knee-knocking, acid-reflux-inducing shot. And on Friday, Bradley hit one after another after another.
Facing Rory McIlroy, the world's top-ranked player, and Graeme McDowell in the afternoon fourball match, Bradley opened play with a birdie and carded another on the third hole en route to a six-birdie performance that had Europe's No. 1 duo reeling all afternoon.
The Americans never trailed in the match and were up by as many as four. By the 15th hole Bradley had the crowd chanting his name while he walked up the fairway with Mickelson, the future Hall of Famer, by his side.
"It could be the best day of my life," Bradley would say afterward.
Come Sunday, it could rank a close second.
After a morning that started out ominously for the United States – at one point the U.S. trailed in all four matches – the Americans salvaged an a.m. split, then won three of four in the p.m. session. It might have been a clean sweep if Belgium's Nicolas Colsaerts hadn't turned in one of the all-time performances that included eight birdies and an eagle to beat Woods and Steve Stricker.
A two-point lead isn't much of an advantage with 20 matches to play, and U.S. captain Davis Love III has to be concerned with the Woods-Stricker pairing, which lost both matches on Friday.
Woods was a disaster in the morning session, but rounded out his game in the afternoon, losing just 1-up despite Colsaerts dropping in a football field's worth of putts.
Late Friday evening, Love announced his decision to sit Woods in Saturday's morning. But really, who needs Tiger Woods when you've got Keegan Bradley on your side?
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