KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. — Like any responsible parent, Mark Bradley takes every opportunity to make sure his children don’t fall prey to an inflated sense of self, his family’s modest New England upbringing a handy tool that reminds them of their blue-collar roots.
Easy to apply, in theory. Not so simple when your 26-year-old son is a multimillionaire celebrity considered to be one of the 15 best golfers in the world.
Keegan Bradley’s rapid rise up the PGA Tour pyramid has already brought the Bradleys a lifetime supply of can-you-believe-this moments — topped by a playoff victory in his major championship debut at last year’s PGA Championship, a title he will defend at Kiawah Island’s demanding Ocean Course starting Thursday.
But with overnight fame and fortune sometimes come time demands and overgrown egos. That’s where Mark Bradley offers his son a loving dose of comeuppance, when it’s required. Fortunately, it has hardly been needed. There was one time, though . . .
“We were having dinner one night, with his mom [Kaye] in San Francisco, and I said something to Keegan,” Mark Bradley said. “And he goes, ‘Excuse me, Dad, I’m trying to play the US Open over here.’ And I went, ‘OK, time out, you can play that card with everybody else, but you can’t play it with your mother and father.’
“It was a great moment, because Kaye agreed, and we laughed, and I still kind of bust him about it.
“His mom and I are there to make sure he doesn’t forget where he came from. And he won’t, he’s a good kid. That’s what I love people saying to me, even more than he’s a great player. People have come up to me his whole life and said he’s a good kid. That’s what you want said about your child.”
Bradley’s golf is what most people are familiar with, and that’s not too shabby, either. After two wins, $3.7 million in official earnings, and the PGA Tour’s Rookie of the Year award in 2011, Bradley has shown that his freshman season was no fluke. He has made 17 cuts in 20 starts this year, with four top-10 finishes and $3.2 million more sent to the bank.
The only thing missing was another win, and that came Sunday. Playing in the final group and starting the final round four shots behind Jim Furyk, Bradley shot a bogey-free 64 to win the Bridgestone Invitational in dramatic fashion. He saved par on the last hole from a buried lie in the bunker, holing a 15-foot putt that gave him a one-shot victory.
The day before Bradley was required to bring the Wanamaker Trophy back to the PGA Championship, he picked up a World Golf Championship collectible that will fit nicely into the new home he recently bought in Tequesta, Fla.
Three wins, including a major and a WGC event. For years, dating to his junior days and then as a lightly-recruited state champion from Hopkinton High School who starred at St. John’s, Bradley considered himself an under-the-radar kind of player. He can’t play that card anymore. But don’t tell him that.
“In my head, I still am. I think in my head, I’ll always think that,” Bradley said. “There’s always something to play for, whether you’re trying to make the Ryder Cup team or trying to make the Presidents Cup team, get top 10 in the world, No. 1 in the world. There’s always something.
“It’s very difficult for me to think that I won’t have something to play for, because even right now I have 100 things that I’d like to do.”
Near the top of that list is to play for the US in this year’s Ryder Cup. Bradley was left off last year’s Presidents Cup team despite his PGA win, something that fueled him this season. After his Bridgestone victory, he is fourth in the points standings; the top eight at the conclusion of the PGA receive automatic spots on the Ryder Cup team.
Anybody who watched Sunday’s Bridgestone telecast could see an on-course intensity in Bradley that should translate well to the Ryder Cup. Fiery, competitive, emotional. Where does Bradley get those? Father knows best.
“I think me, I’m a pretty intense guy,” Mark Bradley said. “The Irish blood, maybe. The other thing is he’s a native Vermonter, he’s a Yank, and they’re a tough breed up there, they don’t take any stuff from people. I think that’s helped him.”
Thrust into the spotlight — and the discussion of best young player — after winning the PGA last year, Bradley knew becoming a major champion would be a life-changing event. Better pairings, loftier on-course expectations, greater off-course attention (he is featured in print ads for Tommy Hilfiger, one of the new pieces to an endorsement portfolio that includes Boston-based Putnam Investments).
He has left much of the juggling to his management team, but still sees and feels a big difference from even a year ago.
“It’s a major adjustment, major,” Bradley said. “Once the tournament starts, everything is about the same. But Monday to Wednesday, it’s a completely different world that one night I didn’t have, the next night I did. It took me a while to adjust to it.”
The adjustments are ongoing. Shortly after his PGA Championship victory, Bradley saw David Toms.
“What are we having for dinner?” Toms asked.
“What are you talking about?” Bradley replied.
John Daly, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods have asked Bradley the same question, since he was the one hosting the champions’ dinner at the PGA this year. It was held Tuesday night, with Bradley able to set the menu. He went with Maine lobster, filet, corn on the cob, and ice cream sundaes.
At the dinner, the host is also expected to present a gift to each of the other PGA champions in attendance. In another indication of his passion for New England, Bradley was handing out personalized Red Sox jerseys, with the golfer’s last name and year he won stitched onto the back.
Bradley invited his father to the exclusive dinner (“he’s going to come as my plus-one”), giving the longtime PGA club pro one of the greatest professional perks imaginable.
The decision was sure to score some personal points, too, more proof that when it comes to ego and remembering where he comes from, Bradley has been paying attention to his old man’s words of wisdom.
Well, most of the time.
“He told me, before he was on the PGA Tour, that when he gets on tour and gets into the big bucks, he said, ‘Everybody goes out and buys themselves a new fancy car. I’m going to buy a piece of ground in Jackson Hole, Wyo.’ I thought that was cool,” said Mark Bradley, who is the head professional at Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club.
Then Bradley won, and got into some big bucks.
“What’s the first thing he does?” Mark Bradley said. “He goes out and buys himself a BMW 750i.”