JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – Saying newly crowned PGA champion Keegan Bradley was practically born to play golf is like saying Barry Bonds got a headstart by being Bobby's son.
His father, Mark, is currently the head pro at Jackson Hole Golf & Tennis Club in Wyoming after stints in Boston and Vermont. Bradley got plenty of lessons and all the time he needed at the practice range, free of charge. Turns out he was schooled, as well, by one of his aunts, who knew plenty about the game and even more about the tenacity it takes to play golf at the highest levels.
That would be LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, whom renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella once called the toughest player he ever saw.
"I grew up going to Pat's tournaments, totally idolizing her and wanting to be like her out there," he said, with the Wanamaker Trophy perched nearby.
"I remember as a kid going out to her tournaments and literally staring her in the face, and I'm her nephew, but she was so into it, she wouldn't even recognize me. And I thought that was cool," said Bradley, now 25.
Some of that coolness apparently made it into Bradley's DNA. The last time a golfer won a major in his first try was Ben Curtis in 2003, and before him, Francis Ouimet in 1913. And until late Sunday afternoon, it looked possible another century might even slip by before it happened again. Bradley began the day trailing third-round co-leaders Jason Dufner and Brendan Steele, a good pal, by only a stroke; by the time he stood on the 16th tee, though, he was down five shots with only three holes to make up the differential.
Yet some of that familial toughness revealed itself as he walked toward No. 16 after dumping a ball in a pond at the 15th and carding a disastrous triple-bogey.
"I remember walking off that green thinking, 'You know, the last four holes are so tough here that somebody could have a five-shot lead. It doesn't matter," Bradley recalled.
The gap closed when Dufner, who played the final four holes at 3-under through the first three rounds, made three bogeys over that same stretch in the last one. Bradley sealed the deal in the three-hole playoff with two straight birdies, closing with a very workmanlike par.
"I kept thinking about the playoff I won at the Byron Nelson, and the same thing happened to me in that. As soon as I realized I was going into a playoff, I completely calmed down," he said.
During the family's time in Vermont, Bradley did a fair share of ski racing as a youngster, but didn't need long to decide between the two sports. He was 12 years old and looking down the barrel of a tough slalom run in Killington when the decision was practically made for him.
"It was raining, cold, sleeting and I'm at the top of this mountain going, 'This is not as much fun as golf. I love golf so much more.'"
As Bradley recalled that moment, his mother, Kaye, sat in the back of the interview room, alternately nodding or chuckling at the memory and crying tears of joy.
"He always said he was going to do this," she said. "I still have a letter he wrote in the first grade saying he was going to be a PGA pro. I've got pictures of him on the range at four. Grandma Bradley sent over his first set of clubs — plastic, of course — for Christmas, and Keegan almost wore those out. He was so devoted. He wanted this so badly. I used to worry what would happen if it didn't come to pass."
She often looked to her husband to be the detached voice of reason any time the discussions turned to Keegan's career.
"But he wasn't much help that way," Kaye Bradley said. "He used to say all the time, 'He's the real deal.' But I didn't want it to be this or nothing. I made sure he got his college degree."
Yet it was Kaye who was unabashedly proud to revive a Bradley tradition. When Pat won her first tournament, in Australia, it was the middle of the night back at the family home in Westford, Mass. Determined to celebrate, Pat's mother ran up and down the streets ringing a cowbell and waking up plenty of her neighbors.
"The bell is actually in the Hall of Fame now," Keegan Bradley said. "My mom has started her own, new tradition, a takeoff on that. She runs up and down the street like a crazy woman with wind chimes.
"Might have to get that bell out of retirement," Bradley mused a moment later. "I'd like to hear it ring at least once."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org. Follow him at http://twitter.com/JimLitke.
(This version CORRECTS Corrects 6th paragraph to show latest winner in first major appearance was Ben Curtis instead of Francis Ouimet.)