Cup rookies ready to step up to pressure

NANCY ARMOUR
Last updated 09:58 28/09/2012
Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley
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FIRST TIME AROUND: Keegan Bradley (right), one of four USA rookies, celebrates after making a putt to claim a cash reward from Phil Mickelson (left) during a practice round ahead of the Ryder Cup.

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The ball was still rattling around the bottom of the cup when Keegan Bradley stuck his hand out, a big grin on his face. Phil Mickelson reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of bills. Bradley grabbed the cash and held it up to the laughing crowd.

Bring on the Ryder Cup. The kid is money - and never more than when the stakes are highest. He won the very first major he played in. A few years before that, he spent his last $1200 on an entry fee and won the tournament.

"He sees things clearer," Mickelson said. "He is able to control his emotions and focus more intensely when it matters most. That's not the case with everybody. But he has that intangible."

The Americans are counting on it.

There will be no room for growing pains for Bradley and the other three US rookies - Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson and Brandt Snedeker. The Americans have only one victory in the last five Ryder Cups, and they will be looking for a fast start when the foursomes begin tomorrow. The raucous crowds, the adrenaline, the weight of playing for your country and 11 other guys instead of yourself - that's why there were three days of practice rounds.

But Bradley is not your ordinary rookie, hardened by both his blue-collar backstory and his friendship with Mickelson.

"I never got any help. I was never taken seriously by anybody," Bradley said. "Even in college, I won a million times and never got All-American honorable mention, stuff like that, That's the reason why I am who I am today. There's no way of me relaxing. I'm always going to feel like have to prove something."

By now, just about everybody knows that Bradley is the nephew of LPGA great Pat Bradley, and that his father is a PGA professional. But he didn't spend his childhood sauntering around country clubs in sun-kissed California or Florida, with recruiters stalking him from the time he was big enough to have his own clubs.

Bradley grew up in Vermont, not exactly a haven for golf prodigies, and his family was hardly what you'd consider wealthy. He would need a scholarship for college, but the big schools took a look, kicked the proverbial tires and moved on. The only school to offer Bradley the full ride he needed was St. John's - yes, the New York City school does have a golf team.

He scraped by on the mini tours for two years after college. One time, he had just enough money to pay that week's entry fee - $1200 - but not enough for the Q-school application that was due the following week. Bradley paid the entry fee, and won the tournament.

Not once did he ask why he was stuck on these small tours, which were about as close to the PGA Tour as the moon.

"Never. Guys like that are the guys that will stay out there," Bradley said. "A lot of guys have that attitude. They'll be there the rest of their lives, and I'll be up here laughing."

A 34th-place finish at the 2009 Q school got Bradley a spot on the Nationwide Tour, and he earned enough there to move up to the PGA Tour in 2011.

In his 16th start, nine days before his 25th birthday, Bradley got his first victory, winning the Byron Nelson in a playoff. He was even more impressive three months later, beating Dufner in another playoff to win the PGA Championship.

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It was only the third time in at least 100 years a player had won a major championship in his first try.

"I never look at myself as a major champion or a top 15 player in world," Bradley said. "I always feel like I'm the worst player out here, and I've got to work hard. That's just my personality."

What pressure Bradley doesn't put on himself, Mickelson does.

He took Bradley under his wing last year, including him in the money games he plays during practice rounds. The "Phil matches" aren't just for Mickelson's amusement - though few talk smack quite like Lefty - but to get promising young players ready for the big time. He simulates match play conditions, pushes them to go for high-risk shots, yaps at them to test their concentration.

And because Mickelson can't go through a drive-through without drawing a crowd, the youngsters get a taste of what it's like to play in the glare of the spotlight.

"Playing with Phil helps me every week," Bradley said. "I've always played very well after I've played in a 'Phil match' because he gets your juices flowing, you start putting balls into the hole."

Take the practice round. Mickelson was hailed like a rock star on every hole, with fans yelling that they loved him, thanking him for buying a share of the San Diego Padres, even giving him props for playing left-handed. Bradley simply laughed at it all.

After Bradley's money-winning putt, he and Mickelson took a few more, with Lefty talking in his ear the whole time. Mickelson then worked on his wedge shots, pointing out the soft spots on the slope.

"Without a doubt, he's prepared me for this moment," Bradley said.

The proof was in his pocket.

- AP

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