BROOKLINE, Mass. — Typically, Keegan Bradley said, he’s used to being the guy in the bleachers.
Bradley is as New England as it gets. He grew up in Woodstock, Vt. and went to high school in Hopkinton, Mass. He bleeds Red Sox red and he spent his childhood obsessing over Bruins and Celtics and Pats and Sox. The names of the guys he used to cheer for from the bleachers — Trot Nixon and Kevin Millar and Troy O’Leary and more — roll off his tongue. He lights up at the very mention of Tom Brady.
But on Saturday, he was the man in the arena. And as he made the walk up the 18th fairway, there were the packed bleachers, left and right, fans on their feet.
KEE-GAN! KEE-GAN! KEE-GAN!
“Honestly, it was one of the most amazing moments of my entire life,” Bradley said some half-hour after he’d finished. There was a slight tremble in his voice as he said it. “I got to feel what it feels like to play in Fenway, to play in the Garden, to play in Gillette Stadium. I felt like a Boston player there.
“That was a moment I’ll never forget the rest of my life, and I appreciate the fans giving me that, and I hope to have them cheer again tomorrow.”
Ah, right. Tomorrow. That’ll come when it does. But for Bradley, today was well worth celebrating.
Bradley began Saturday’s third round at one under par, just four shots off the US Open lead. But his tournament chances seemed all but doomed when he stumbled out of the gates with bogeys at 2, 3 and 6. Suddenly he was eight shots back and trending down.
“I got a little upset at myself walking down the 7th fairway and gave myself a little talking to,” he said. “Sometimes that can kick things into gear.”
It seemed to do the trick. Bradley launched driver, long iron to the back edge of the par-5 8th in two, setting up a two-putt birdie. At No. 9, one of the largest amphitheaters on course, he stuck his approach to 10 feet and poured in a putt with a massive fist-pump in front of a frothy Boston crowd.
“That putt on 9 with the crowd — I felt it. I could feel it go. I could feel the energy change,” he said.
The energy change took one hole to kick in — Bradley bogeyed No. 10 — but then he sprinted towards the clubhouse with birdies at 13, 14 and 17. That set up a walk to the 18th green that Bradley says he’ll never forget.
“The crowds as usual here in Boston I think are the best in the world,” he said. They roared Bradley to the finish and he signed for a Saturday 69 that leaves him T4, two shots back and in the penultimate Sunday pairing alongside Jon Rahm.
Bradley has been the man in the arena before, of course. He won the 2011 PGA Championship in his very first major championship start and was a shot of energy on the 2012 and 2014 US Ryder Cup teams. There are several reasons this day was different.
The first is that he’s home. Every golfer on the PGA Tour is from somewhere, of course. Some of them even get the opportunity to win their hometown events, like Max Homa did at the Genesis Invitational a year ago. But few golfers are as closely associated with their hometowns as Bradley is with Boston; he wore his fandom on his sleeve long before he got his Tour card. And few towns embrace their own like this one. When he threw out the first pitch at Fenway Park this Tuesday, it felt natural. There’s no current professional golfer who is more New England than Bradley.
The next is that this isn’t his home anymore — not his only home, at least. Bradley has lived in south Florida for a decade now. He was a founding member of the Jupiter Crew. And while the Tour used to make an annual stop in Boston, the Deutsche Bank Championship of Bradley’s youth is no longer a thing, and there hasn’t been a men’s major championship in the state of Massachusetts since 1988, when Bradley was 2. Being home is awfully special because it doesn’t happen much, and because it means so much when it does.
Then there’s that team sports bit. Bradley grew up a serious competitive skier and a competitive golfer, two decidedly individual endeavors. But he’s always said those Ryder Cup teams are the most fun he’s ever had. And his favorite sports memory is seeing the Pats win the 2001 Super Bowl in the basement with his dad.
“I remember watching [Adam] Vinatieri’s kick go through,” he said. “It was amazing.”
Golf doesn’t often give you that same feeling. There aren’t teams and there aren’t towns and there’s no unconditional loyalty. Not usually, at least.
That’s several reasons but it’s really just one: Professional golf is lonely and it takes you far from home. On Saturday Bradley was home. And whatever describes the opposite of lonely, that’s what he felt walking up the final hole.
“Most of the time I’m playing across the world or the country, and I’m by myself, and every now and then I’m in Hartford and I get to feel that, or in a Ryder Cup,” he said. “But out here today felt like I was in a home game, which is something that, as a kid, it’s a dream.”
Bradley is 36 years old now. He’s been a PGA Tour pro for just over a decade. He knows all these things more deeply now: The sacrifices required to get there. The hard work required to stay there. He knows the joys of golf’s highest peaks and he knows that you can go years and years before you climb that mountain again — if you ever do. He knows that joy is fleeting and that special moments are worth appreciating. He agonized for years over getting into this specific US Open because he knew how much it would mean to play in front of these people. He didn’t necessarily get this far — the second-to-last group on Sunday — in his plans.
“I’ve tried really hard this week to look into the crowd and see the people,” he said. “Every now and then I’ll look, and I’ll see an aunt or an uncle or a friend, and it’s really, really fun.”
Bradley has built a tremendous life for himself and his family; His wife and two kids are with him this week. One day, you know, his kids will be the kids in those bleachers, too, with their parents alongside them. But Bradley has worked for this fleeting moment, when all his world collide.
Now there’s tomorrow: One more day to soak it all in.