IRVING, Texas — Keegan Bradley sometimes looks at the PGA Championship trophy sitting on his mantel and starts laughing.
“It seems so bizarre that the Wanamaker Trophy, it’s in my room,” Bradley said. “Definitely, sometimes I have to ask myself, ‘Is this really real?’ … It’s cool to be living with it.”
One thing that helped set up Bradley to win that major in a three-hole playoff last August came nearly three months before that, when he got his first professional victory in a playoff at the Byron Nelson Championship.
“I went from an unknown rookie trying to keep his card to winning a PGA Tour event and locking up my future a little bit,” he said. “I was able to draw on my experience here, especially at the PGA playoff, and this tournament will always be special to me. … This tournament might have set up my whole career.”
Things certainly have changed the past year for the nephew of LPGA great Pat Bradley.
Keegan Bradley is back at the Nelson to play as a defending champion for the first time. The opening round is Thursday at TPC Four Seasons with a field that includes Matt Kuchar the week after he won The Players Championship.
At the Nelson last May, Bradley didn’t even stay in the resort hotel adjacent to the No. 1 tee near Lord Byron’s statue. He went basically unrecognized on the course and wasn’t asked to sign many autographs. He was even overshadowed during the final round by the local teenage amateur who was his playing partner.
Bradley initially wasn’t even planning to play at the Nelson last year.
His initial plan last year was to play at Colonial instead of the following week at the Nelson. The Texas two-step was in a rare reversed order, but this year is back to the more traditional schedule with the Nelson preceding Colonial.
Bradley is sure glad he took caddie Steve Hale’s advice.
“I was done, I had made my decision and Pepsi, my caddie, said, ‘Look, I think you should play (Nelson)’ — he’s never said anything like that in my career,” Bradley said. “He said Nelson fits your game better, and sure enough, we came here and won. Pepsi knew something I didn’t.”
Kuchar, No. 5 in the World Golf Ranking, and 10th-ranked Phil Mickelson are the only top 10 players from that list at the Nelson. Mickelson, a two-time Nelson champion back for the first time in five years, is No. 4 in the FedEx Cup standings, the highest from that ranking. Kuchar is sixth.
Winning a tournament the magnitude of The Players Championship was about the only scenario Kuchar could have imagined that “could throw a little bit of a wrench” on his plans to be at the Nelson. Still, there was never really any thought of not playing again this week after his fifth top-10 finish in his last seven tournaments.
“My caddie is from the Dallas area, my instructor is from the Dallas area,” Kuchar said. “Staying at the Four Seasons is special, it’s beautiful, where you don’t have to get in your car. There’s a lot of great things about coming to Dallas for me.”
Beside the extra time with his instructor a month before the U.S. Open, Kuchar’s kids that were celebrating with him after he won The Players Championship last weekend like putting on their cowboy boots in Texas.
Kuchar tied for sixth at last year’s Nelson at even par, three strokes behind the winning score of 277.
Bradley is 21st in the FedEx Cup standings and has made 11 of 13 cuts with three top 10s this season. His two missed cuts came in the two weeks before finishing 35th at The Players.
Nancy Lopez, the LPGA Hall of Fame member and 48-time winner who this week received the Byron Nelson Prize, said she likes to watch older PGA players like Fred Couples and Ernie Els. But one of the youngsters she pays attention to is Bradley, largely because of her connection with Pat Bradley.
“When I met Keegan, he was a little bitty guy, and I didn’t know that he played golf at the time. I don’t think Pat ever said that she had a nephew playing or was going to go on the PGA Tour,” Lopez said. “When I saw him I said, ‘That’s Pat Bradley’s nephew. It has to be.’ He looks just like her, or her brothers. … He’s fun to watch.”
Pat Bradley won 31 times, including six majors.
Before winning at the Nelson last year, Keegan Bradley regularly spoke with his aunt through text messages and phone calls about playing and what it was like at the end of tournaments.
Their conversations have changed a lot since then.
“We talk about off-the-course stuff, business kind of stuff, media … talking about winning major championships, how she won her first when she was about my age,” said Keegan, who turns 26 next month. “It’s more of how to win tournaments now and how to be in contention and handle it as opposed to just feeling comfortable at a golf tournament on the PGA Tour. So it’s cool how it’s evolved.”