BROOKLINE, Mass. — Keegan Bradley practically sprinted to the scoring tent, knuckling up every single one of his well-served supporters along the way. The New England native had just polished off a blue-collar one-under 69 on an unseasonably chilly afternoon in the Northeast, the type of round that helps you gain ground on moving day at the US Open. After 54 holes, he’s tied for fourth at two under, which placed him in the penultimate group on Sunday alongside Jon Rahm at The Country Club, which is a little more than two hours away from his hometown of Woodstock, Vt.
The fans packed behind the 18th green and the ones inside the grandstand to the left of it were clearly well aware of the 36-year-old’s roots.
“KEEEEEGAN!!” they screamed. “ATTTAAA BOY KEEEGAN” they shouted.
That was just a sampling of the reception the four-time PGA Tour winner and one-time major champion received on the final hole of his round (and all day, for that matter). One thing was clear after Saturday’s play: both he, and the Brookline faithful, are leaning all the way into the New England narrative.
“I’ve been asked about it a ton since I finished,” said Bradley, who made multiple TV stops before meeting with the rest of the media. “And honestly, it was one of the most amazing moments of my entire life.”
Bradley was not exaggerating. Growing up a fan of the Boston sports franchises, he dreamed of moments like this one, moments where everyone on hand was fully in his corner. Moments he hasn’t truly experienced since the 2012 Ryder Cup, where Bradley, alongside American teammate Phil Mickelson, became one of the event’s folk heroes for his big-time putts and the boisterous celebrations they produced.
Bradley has had a more than respectable career since that Ryder Cup, making the team again in 2014 and picking up the most recent of his four tour victories in 2018. Since Medinah a decade ago, however, he has not and may never again receive the type of love he received as he made his way to the clubhouse on Saturday evening.
Unless, of course, he wins this damn thing on Sunday.
“That walk up 18 was the best I’ve ever felt at a tournament,” Bradley said. “That was really cool. It’s got a British Open feel, that 18th. It really does. They’ve done an incredible job.”
Early in Bradley’s round, that walk appeared more unlikely than his beloved Patriots’ comeback from being down 28-3 in Super Bowl LI. Through seven holes he sat at three over par on the day, two over for the championship. A birdie at No. 8 was not exactly a momentum-shifter, the par 5 playing as the easiest hole on the course this week. A birdie, while important, probably felt a lot more like a par.
But then Bradley birdied the tricky par-4 ninth, with its odd sloping fairway that has forced players to play it safe with an iron off the tee to avoid the water down the right side. Bradley did indeed play it safe, but then he got aggressive with his 172-yard approach shot from the fairway, sticking it to 11 feet and pouring in a round-shifting birdie that changed everything.
“I made this putt on 9 today, and the crowd really went … I walked up to the green, and the crowd really went crazy for me,” he said. “And then I made the putt, and they went wild. It really gave me a jolt of energy. It put me on a path to, all right, we no longer are trying to save this round. Let’s try to get ourselves into contention here, and I did that.”
Despite bogeying the 10th, Bradley still managed to keep his focus. Birdies at 13, 14 and 17 switched his Saturday from a round that wasn’t even sniffing the television broadcast to a “and now we go over to the 18th tee …” type affair. Still, it was the putt right before the turn when he knew it was game on.
“That putt on 9, I felt it. I could feel it go. I could feel the energy change,” he said.
As a kid, Bradley cheered for Boston legends like Tom Brady and David Ortiz. Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. Rock stars around these parts. On Saturday, his play, which was unbelievably impressive considering the conditions, allowed him to feel like TB12 and Big Papi. Like the Truth and the Big Ticket.
“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,” he said.
“As a kid, I dreamed of playing in front of Boston fans and being a Patriot or being in the Garden. 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. Out here today felt like I was in a home game, which is something that as a kid, it’s a dream.”
Like his childhood heroes, Bradley is well aware that the job’s not finished. At two under, two off the lead of Will Zalatoris and Matt Fitzpatrick, he’ll need to channel his inner-Brady and mount a fourth-quarter charge. Like Brady, he’ll need to toe the line between calm, cool, collected and “let’s-f—ing-go” intense.
“Well, tomorrow is going to be a tough day. I know that. It just is. It would be if I was playing in Tulsa,” he said. “But playing here, it’s going to be intense, but I’ve had this weird sense of calm over me this week. I don’t know if that will be here tomorrow or not, but I just have to try to just put one foot in front of the other. Honestly, that’s all the silly cliches we all say.”
Funny enough, there would be nothing more cliche, and nothing more electric, than Bradley victory in front of a Boston crowd, which, for once in its damn life, experienced a little bit of pain in the Celtics’ Game 6 loss in the NBA Finals this past Thursday night. Should Bradley go on to win on Sunday, that pain will have lasted all of 72 hours, and it will be he and the city’s latest sports memory that will last a lifetime.