Belly Putters, Belly Laughs
PGA Pro Keegan Bradley Returns Home to Share Good Times
Keegan Bradley, left, and Brendan Steele, right, sign autographs following a pro clinic at the Keegan Bradley charity golf classic at the Woodstock Country Club in Woodstock, Vt. on August 26, 2013. The classic benefits the Vermont Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »
Keegan Bradley hits a ball during a pro clinicat the Keegan Bradley charity golf classic at the Woodstock Country Club in Woodstock, Vt. on August 26, 2013. The classic benefits the Vermont Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »
PGA Pro Keegan Bradley, center, is all smiles after hitting a 125 yard drive that fell directly into the 4th hole at the Keegan Bradley charity golf classic at the Woodstock Country Club in Woodstock, Vt. on August 26, 2013. The classic benefits the Vermont Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation. At left is PGA Pro Brendan Steele. Valley News - Elijah Nouvelage Purchase photo reprints »
Woodstock — Being Keegan Bradley’s friend comes with responsibilities. For one: You are susceptible to being needled at any moment.
That’s what brought Ben Mayhew onto the Woodstock Country Club putting green on Monday morning, to borrow the three-time PGA Tour winner’s driver, to face potential embarrassment either by duffing a shot in front of 200 strangers or taking a chunk out of course pro Jim Gunnare’s precious putting surface. In the second iteration of the Keegan Bradley Charity Golf Classic, this is Keegan being Keegan, pulling an old Woodstock Union High School buddy out of the crowd to let him show off.
The impetus: last August’s tourney, when Mayhew executed a perfect drive in front of visiting television cameras, which led to interviews, which led to what Bradley called a claim that Mayhew was “a local celebrity.” The payback: A captive audience for Mayhew and a reasonably well-swung drive that … well …
“It went pretty left,” Mayhew confessed afterward, craning his neck for a look down Woodstock’s first fairway, as if searching for his wayward golf ball.
The old friendships remind Bradley of his former home. The tour friendships provide sanity. The Woodstock native does what he can to preserve both.
Bradley — now a decade removed from when he last called the town home — brought one of his PGA Tour buddies, California native Brendan Steele, to town for a fundraiser for the Pediatric Cancer Research Foundation’s support of Burlington’s Vermont Cancer Center and the Vermont Children’s Hospital at Fletcher Allen. Bradley raised about $100,000 for the Vermont Disaster Relief Fund in last year’s return home and hoped to do better this time, but he did it without a friend’s aid the last time around.
“It’s super important,” Bradley said prior to the tournament’s start. “Steeley is the opposite of me. He’s more relaxed, and it kind of balances me out. It kind of helps me play better golf.
“I didn’t want to ask him, because I knew he’d say yes. I didn’t want to put pressure on him. Our agent asked him, and he was all for it, very excited to come.”
With that, Bradley had a chance to be with friends both old and new, on the course upon which he grew, where former schoolmates ribbed him for bringing his clubs to school, where he built the foundation for his burgeoning career.
The timing works well. The next stop in the PGA’s playoffs, the Deutsche Bank Championship outside Boston, doesn’t start until Friday, leaving Monday ideal for Bradley to play tournament host. Finishing at The Barclays in New Jersey on Sunday — Bradley tied for 33rd place, Steele missed the cut by a stroke — the two flew to Lebanon on Sunday night in time for the native to give the visitor a quick spin around town.
“He kept on saying how green it was,” Bradley remarked. “That’s what everybody says.”
“I think he’s a little bit shy about asking these sorts of things,” Steele said. “He doesn’t want to feel like he’s asking too much or overstepping his bounds. He was a little shy about it, but I couldn’t be more excited to be here.
“I think this is such a great cause, to be in a great area with something that’s important to him. There are very few guys that I’d go way out of my way for, but I’d do anything for this guy.”
Steele is Bradley’s best friend on the tour, and it shows. They are very similar — lanky and slim, both aficionados of the belly putters the PGA Tour will outlaw in 2016. (Steele already has a shorter, weight-similar replacement in his bag.) They are very different: While Bradley absent-mindedly twirled a club through most of a half-hour clinic/Q&A session, Steele leaned casually against his bag or a club of his own.
Their friendship has grown from similar circumstances. Bradley’s small-town unbringing — he moved from Woodstock after his junior year in high school in 2003 — mirrors that of Steele, who hails from the Southern California mountains. Both reached the PGA Tour through the second-tier Nationwide Tour in 2010; they won their first PGA events within six weeks of each other the following year.
They are also very connected. Teammates in winning the Franklin Templeton Shootout in 2011, a two-man silly season event during the tour’s down time, they now have regular Tuesday matches together against Phil Mickelson “and whoever he’s got,” according to Bradley, whenever all are at the same tournament.
“What makes Steeley a good player is he plays to his strengths,” Bradley said while Steele hit short irons off a mat protecting the practice green. “He’s just going to be so steady. He’s just going to hit one down the fairway, hit that little draw in there, take out that belly putter, hit every putt — hopefully — against Phil on Tuesday …”
“I’m as close with Keegan as I am with anybody, really, in the world,” Steele said. “It’s really cool all of the things we’ve been able to do together.”
Bradley also hasn’t let a competitive nature interfere with the relationships he’s built.
It might have hampered someone else to befriend rival Jason Dufner even in the wake of the collapse that led to Bradley’s PGA Championship win in 2011. Rather, Bradley was among the first to give Dufner a hearty greenside embrace when the latter secured his first major championship.
“Me and Duf are good buddies; we play a lot of practice rounds together, and he’s a good guy,” Bradley said. “He took the playoff loss to me (in 2011) very well. That kind of made us closer and made us into buddies. … Duf is a good dude. It’s easy to get along with him.”
So it remains for those who knew Bradley way back when.
Steele joked that he thumbed a ride on Bradley’s jet for the trip to Woodstock. If so, then so did Mayhew, who graduated from Woodstock High in 2004 and now lives and works in Manhattan. He was among the 100 or so golfers who teed up for Bradley’s charitable initiative a day after watching him play in Jersey.
“Keegan’s obviously very busy; those guys are constantly going city to city, state to state, competing, so getting to see him has been hard,” Mayhew said. “But I have his phone number. We text a lot. I try to go to as many tournaments as possible. … He’s such a nice guy, and he’s so caring and willing to do anything for his friends.
“His time is precious. He’s got a lot on his plate, and he still finds the time to talk to us, to say, ‘What’s up? How are things going with your job?’ I’ve been happy and lucky enough to maintain that friendship ever since we were yay-tall running around Woodstock, up until now.”
It’s Bradley’s easy-going nature that allows his old peers and his new ones to stay in his orbit.
“I’m excited to go around and watch everyone hit terrible shots like I did last year,” Bradley deadpanned. “I’ve got a group of my best buddies, and it’s always fun to go out there and watch them slap it around. That’s how I enjoy myself during the day — just make fun of all the bad shots.”
No offense intended. We’re all friends here.
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.