Success comes at different speeds for different players. For Keegan Bradley, at age 25 years old, success came fast and furious. In 2011, his rookie year on Tour, he won the Byron Nelson and the PGA Championship, joining the ultra-exclusive club of players to win in their first major championships start.
And then it stopped. But after his breakout season, Bradley quickly learned that wins were a lot harder to come by than his debut season might have suggested.
A winless drought sidetracked his career from mid 2012 to late 2018, when Bradley was able to find the same magic from early in his career and return to the winner’s circle at the BMW Championship, defeating Justin Rose in a playoff at Aronimink.
SI.com’s Ryan Asselta recently sat down with the 33-year-old Bradley for a quick nine. As he gets ready to kick off his 9th season on the PGA Tour, Keegan talked about the changes in his game and his life, the bumpy road back that led him to some very dark places and, of course, his beloved New England Patriots.
Ryan Asselta: A year ago, you kind of rejuvenated your career with a FedEx Cup playoff resurgence.
The win at the BMW Championship was your first win in six years. What did it feel like to taste victory again after a long drought?
Keegan Bradley: You know, a lot of hard work goes into what we do, and it took a lot of work to get back to that point. I had to kind of bring myself out of a pretty dark space with my game. Luckily, I was able to get back to the level of where I want my game to be, but it’s hard to maintain. It definitely raises my expectations of what I want to do. It’s not easy but if I continue doing what I’m doing, with my practice and what I’m working on, I think it will continue.
RA: You mentioned a dark place with your game. How tough was it considering the success you’d had early on in your career?
KB: Yeah, it's was really tough. A lot of veteran guys on tour would always tell me, “You’ve gotta enjoy that time, enjoy that journey. Enjoy the climb back and the hard work you put in.” I really tried to do that. You can’t always do it, but it is fun to look back and see the work you put it and how you were able to turn it around. Sometimes that journey is more important than anything you do.
RA: Were there certain guys you leaned on, friends on Tour or older guys, that helped you and gave you that type of advice?
KB: I spoke to Phil (Mickelson) a lot, and Ernie Els was another guy. They are guys out here that just get it. People outside of the Tour made things a little confusing. It was the players that have gone through it and had their version of a bad couple of years. They were a big help.
It’s rare for a guy to play at a high level forever. Those guys have been through it. In some ways I think the down times can make you better and make you fight for it longer in your career.
RA: This stretch over the last 12 months, a win at the BMW, second at the Travelers, eight top 10s…What’s been the biggest key when it comes to your golf game, in getting yourself back into contention more regularly?
KB: For me, it’s always about the putter. When I can get the putter going, I know I’ll be up at the top of leaderboards. It’s been inconsistent. I’m trying to get it more consistent.
I’ve got to put the work in every day, and work on the right things. Putting in the hours isn’t enough. You have to put the time in doing the right things. Practicing with a purpose. That’s been the biggest change in what I’ve been doing lately, and it’s been a big help.
RA: Success early in your career came quickly. In 2011, you get your first win during your rookie season at the Byron Nelson and then less than three months later you win the PGA Championship. Was it almost too much, too soon for you?
KB: I don't think so. I had a lot of support, whether it be from my friends or my family or people like that. It never changed who I was. I never ever felt different. But it does make it harder when things aren't going well because, I went from being a rookie on Tour—no one knew who I was—to all the sudden I was on Ryder Cup teams,
Presidents Cup teams. That's a big change. But I loved it. I had a blast. It never felt too much. Whether it might have actually been? I don’t know, but it was all going so fast. It was fun.
RA: Did the success almost raise your expectations to an unrealistic level?
KB: Definitely, as a rookie your goal is really just trying to keep your Tour card. So, my goals changed more rapidly because of what happened. Now you're looking at Ryder Cups, Presidents Cups and looking at how do I get ready to win majors? That's just not on your radar as a rookie.
It's a very rare thing that happens on the Tour. Normally you kind of work your way up. A lot of guys do that. I wasn’t one of them, but I wouldn’t change it.
RA: How much have you changed since then as a person? As a golfer?
KB: I mean, I think back to winning that PGA and it seems like another lifetime. I see it in my mind like I'm watching on TV. I don't see it from my perspective. It's weird. I was talking to Webb Simpson recently about this, it was just such a different time of my career and my life. I've looked back at that and think how proud I am that it happened. But I also think, I can't believe I did that!
RA: I know your life has changed a lot since 2011. You’re married and have a son. How much did happiness off the course lead you back to winning and contending in big events again?
KB: It’s definitely a factor. But what people don’t understand or talk about is that it also makes it more difficult to do. It’s harder to put the time in practicing. After you’re done with a pro-am, and we’re exhausted, I used to just go home and lay in bed and rest. Now, I go back home, and I’ve got an incredible son, Logan, waiting for me, but there’s some challenges that come with that too. There’s an adjustment to make as a player with a family. The whole thing gives you perspective. Having a bad round or missing a cut used to bother me for days. Now I see my family and it helps me lose that feeling very quickly.
It’s a balancing act. I’m already thinking right now, I wasn’t with Logan last week, and I’m going to be traveling the next two weeks, so how can I see them as much as possible this week? It’s definitely a change in how you prepare for tournaments.
RA: I know you're a big New England sports fan. Patriots, Red Sox… Do you ever get into any heated sports debates with guys on Tour?
KB: Yeah, well especially now with Boston winning everything. They’ve basically become the villain among other sports teams and cities. It’s known throughout the Tour that I’m a Boston fan and I love these teams. We’ve been so lucky. The last 15 to 20 years have been great and it’s made for some fun banter out here.
RA: How about Patriots fans specifically… Would you agree that they can be a little bit obnoxious?
KB: Yeah for sure they can be. We’re just very proud of the Patriots and all of our sports teams in New England. The fans are passionate. Especially fans that are a little younger than I am.
For me, the most fun thing to do off the course is watching the Patriots. I really use that as a source of relaxation or fun. It's a big part of my life and that's when I can really forget about golf for a while. It’s a big escape for me.