MEDINAH, Ill. Of all the wondrous things Keegan Bradley has done over the first two days of this American-dominated Ryder Cup, the most special might be what he has done for Phil Mickelson.
He has played Ponce de Leon for his 42-year old idol.
Bradley, a 26-year old collection of knees, elbows and passion, has played this Ryder Cup with the pure joy of a kid on Christmas morning, each hole a new present, each match another Christmas.
He has given us the Keegan shuffle, the little two-step he does before stepping into some shots, and he’s given us the one-eyed stare where he tilts his head to one side like he’s sighting a rifle while lining up a putt. It’s as if he’s scaring the ball into the hole.
He is the American team’s ascendant star, its emotional center and a big reason why Mickelson is enjoying the best Ryder Cup of his career. Together, they are 3-0, the first time since Mickelson’s first Ryder Cup in 1995 that he’s won three points.
Mickelson is wealthy enough to buy whatever he wants except the past and Bradley has made him look and feel like the young Phil again.
“Keegan is a 26-year old Phil Mickelson. He reminds Phil of Phil,” Mickelson’s caddy, Jim “Bones” Mackay said, standing beside the 12th green Saturday after Mickelson and Bradley had handed Lee Westwood and Luke Donald a 7&6 defeat, equaling most lopsided American win in Ryder Cup history.
Barring something spectacularly unexpected, the American team will regain the Ryder Cup Sunday at Medinah and the Bradley-Mickelson pairing may be the biggest reason why.
“The U.S. didn’t really have a ‘go-to’ team … but now, I think, the U.S. actually has a ‘go-to’ team that everybody can rally around, almost like the Seve (Ballesteros)-(Jose Maria) Olazabal-type teams in the past,” Hall of Famer Johnny Miller said.
Mickelson and Bradley sat out Saturday afternoon, a decision some questioned given their success. But captain Davis Love III stuck with his plan of giving every player at least one session off to stay fresh and, he added, Mickelson asked for a break.
The Ryder Cup is only partly about golf. It’s also about emotions, body language and momentum. At Medinah, where the Chicago crowds have been as brilliant as the autumn afternoons, the Americans have generated the noise.
On the European side, world No. 1 Rory McIlroy looks tired. So does Graeme McDowell. Lee Westwood looked relieved not to be playing Saturday afternoon. Look at the bottom of the European roster – Martin Kaymer, Peter Hanson and Francesco Molinari – and you see no one to save the day.
Look at the Americans and, for the most part, you see joy. It happens when the putts are falling.
Look at Bradley and you see a player literally having the time of his life.
“These have been the two best days of my life,” Bradley said as fans chanted his name near the 12th green.
Golf chemistry is a moving formula. For the better part of two decades, Americans couldn’t solve it. This year, the pairings, except for the lost magic of Tiger Woods and Steve Stricker, fit like peanut butter and jelly.
None have been better than Bradley and Mickelson. When they played the Waste Management Open in Phoenix in February, they watched the Super Bowl together. When Mickelson scheduled his flight to Chicago on Air Phil, the first person he invited to join him was Bradley.
“They play identical types of golf and they are identically excitable. There’s a real bond there,” Mackey said.
Mickelson won’t quite let himself go the way Bradley does when another putt falls or another hole is won. Mickelson did pat Bradley on the butt Friday during a Friday match, but Phil is more of a thumbs-up guy while Bradley celebrates as if his beloved Boston Red Sox had just won another World Series.
“I would never do that in a stroke-play event,” Bradley said. “It’s just very relaxing to know that I have a Hall of Fame partner that knows how to get it up and in from anywhere on the golf course.”
By the time Bradley and Mickelson reached the par-4 12th hole Saturday morning, they were already 6-up over Westwood and Donald, the only question being where the match would end. It seemed destined to go another hole when Bradley’s second shot from the right trees ticked and branch and fell into the rough, 118 uphill yards from the hole.
Knowing the Europeans already had a putt for birdie on the 12th green, Bradley climbed the hill and watched Mickelson down below. When Mickelson’s wedge shot landed on the left side of the green, it spun right and began rolling down the slope toward the hole. The closer it got, the more Bradley bounced.
“We couldn’t see the ball when it landed but watching Keegan up there, he gave us play by play with his body,” Mackay said.
When it stopped 6 inches from the hole, Bradley leaped and did a 360-degree spin. Moments later, the Europeans three-putted for a bogey and the match was over.
Keegan Bradley wanted it to last forever.