Keegan Bradley finished a practice round at Royal Troon on Monday when he decided to play a prank. He climbed inside the massive leaderboard next to the 18th green, found the right letters and put his name on it.

Coming into the British Open, that might have been the only way to see it.

This is the last of his five-year exemption based on his PGA Championship victory in 2011. He hasn't won any tournament in four years. He is No. 120 in the world.

The best news Friday: His name was on the leaderboard, this time for real.

Bradley recovered from a rough stretch to start the back nine and posted a 3-under 68, leaving him in a tie for third and only three shots behind Phil Mickelson going into the weekend at Royal Troon.

"It's just more fun to play well," Bradley said. "It's extra hard to play well and not see the scores, and that's kind of what's been happening to me over the last couple of months. That's actually harder than playing. ... Everybody comes up to me and says, 'What's wrong with you?' And that's the toughest. Because I tell them, 'I'm fine.' I'm enjoying the challenge of getting better."

And it has been a challenge.

Bradley won a World Golf Championship at Firestone in 2012 for his third victory in his first 50 starts as a PGA Tour member. This is his 100th tournament worldwide since then without a victory, and with only a couple of serious chances.

It's more than just the ban on the anchored putting stroke for Bradley, who was the first major champion to use a longer putter that he stuck to his stomach. Bradley wasn't getting results. He wasn't getting picked for U.S. teams. The confidence was slipping.

He started working with a new coach at the Bear's Club in south Florida. He replaced the only caddie he ever had on the PGA Tour.

"It takes time," Bradley said. "I've actually been playing pretty well for a couple of months; didn't have much to show for it. It's coming. I can feel it coming. Whether it happens this week, it's coming back, which is good."

Bradley said he knows this because he feels uncomfortable over certain shots, to the point of being nervous, and that used to be when he was at his best. On those occasions at Troon, he said he has delivered quality shots. And that's what he has been missing.

"Today I was really nervous on that 10th tee shot, and I probably hit the best shot of the day there," he said. "So to me, that's a good sign."

Bradley had plenty of help along the way. Mickelson took him under his wing when he was a rookie in 2011, inviting him to some of his money games during practice rounds at big events. Mickelson, Ernie Els and Fred Couples were among those who told him they had all been in slumps during their careers.

"They all said, 'We went through this at some point. It was just a little dip and people freak out. It's your job to enjoy the challenge of coming back,'" he said.

Is he coming back?

Two good rounds, even at a major, is not enough for a good measure. But it is a start.

"There's part of being emotional both ways, where you can go the other way and it can get ugly," Bradley said. "It's difficult for me to sit back and watch everybody winning, and that's probably the most difficult, just not being in the conversation. So it may not happen this week, but I know it's going to. It's feeling good."