Keegan Bradley & Major Pressure

by Jeff Skinner

Keegan Bradley, Jason Dufner and The Atlanta Athletic Club put on a stunning show Sunday afternoon at The PGA Championship.  It had all the makings of a classic.  There was drama and suspense.  We had joy and we had heartbreak.  The only thing missing was a marquee name.

Bradley and Dufner proved that we can see great golf from guys not named Mickelson or Woods.  They’ve shown that you can fly coach and still win a major.  The two stars of The PGA Championship proved that the depth of talent on the PGA Tour is indeed deep.  The finish was the stuff of childhood dreams and Bradley got to live it.

Unfortunately, for Bradley the huge trophy and the even larger paycheck aren’t the only things that come with this major championship.  Already some are calling Bradley the new face of American Golf and expecting him to lead the charge to overtake the dominance of the Europeans.  With this win comes pressure and sometimes that pressure has a more lasting effect than the victory.

We’ve seen players win majors before and then try to live up to the pressure of validating that major with another.  Bradley’s win in his first major matched the win of Ben Curtis at The Open Championship in 2003.  Curtis was 26 and having a fairly poor season when he captured the Claret Jug.  His next two years on the PGA Tour saw him miss more cuts than he made.  But in 2006 he made the winners circle again with wins at The Booz Allen Classic and The 84 Lumber Classic.  Curtis has made over ten million dollars on tour but is still looking for that validating major.

That same year Shaun Micheel won the PGA at Oak Hill in his third start in a major.  He hit one of the most historic shots in PGA history when he stiffed his approach mere inches from the cup on the final hole to win.  He was thirty four and although he did come close when he placed second to Tiger Woods at The 2006 PGA his 2003 win is still his only victory.

Rich Beem had a good 2001 but he had a better 2002 when he won in back to back starts.  2002 was Beem’s career year.  He won The International and in his next start he beat Tiger  Woods at Hazeltine for his first major at The PGA Championship.  He hasn’t won since.

Justin Leonard was 25 when he grabbed a hold of the Claret Jug at Royal Troon.  He already had a victory before the Open Championship win and he was designated as the next big thing, destined to win major after major.  Leonard has had an amazing career: twelve PGA Tour wins, $30 million in winnings and a putt at The Ryder Cup that changed the earth’s rotation.  But he is still looking for his next major.

The point here isn’t to trivialize the careers of these golfers.  Any man that can make a living on tour and is called a major champion is indeed special.  The fact is that it is tough to win a major.  It takes skill, it takes mental toughness and it takes a little bit of luck.  That’s why there are only four majors and that’s why they are called majors.

Keegan Bradley played a skilled round of golf on Sunday.  He showed true grit as he battled back from a triple bogey on fifteen to birdie the next two holes.  And he had a bit of good fortune fall his way.  It takes all that to win a major and Bradley is a deserved champion.

We should allow Bradley a few breaths of championship air before we ordain him “the next big thing.”  He isn’t the next Tiger.  He isn’t The Face of American Golf.  He probably doesn’t want to be.  He’s a young man at the start of his career that has taken a huge step in his professional life.  He may grow into the next Tiger or Phil or Nicklaus, or he may still be searching for his next major ten years from now.

The  sudden fame and fortune that a major brings can change a man and his game.  Graeme McDowell is still floundering after his U.S. Open and Ryder Cup success.  Keegan Bradley has earned all this adulation.  A major champion has new pressures and responsibilities.  But before we crush him with expectations let Keegan Bradley enjoy his victory.  The pressure will come soon enough.



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