Bradley Bids Adieu to Bridgestone Monster

By: Marino Parascenzo

"I'm still just a little kid out there playing," Keegan Bradley was saying, after he picked off the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in a weird, fragmented finish Sunday. He's not your regular kind of kid. He's 26, stands 6-foot-3, and for the past year, has slept with a monster under his bed.

The monster was the memory of last year's Bridgestone, when he was a PGA Tour rookie fresh from the Nationwide Tour, who amazingly found himself in the thick of the hunt with nine holes to play and who then folded miserably. That's not the kind of mortification a guy forgets, or the implications that go with it.

Ironic game, this golf. In the 2012 final round of the same tournament Bradley was in the thick of it down the last nine again, climbing the leaderboard fingernail by fingernail, and with every inch he gained, the monster shot him another grin. Probably looking very much like a skull.

"I laughed at it," said Bradley, who not only held himself together but went the final 33 holes without a bogey, and attacked in the final round for a 6-under 64 for a 13-under 267 and one-stroke win.

Of course, it helped that Jim Furyk did - on the final hole - what it took Bradley the whole back nine to do last year - blow the tournament.

Which hurts worse: one long tooth-pull or a chop to the throat? Furyk, who folded down the final few holes in the last round of the U.S. Open in June, was making, as they say, a statement. A medium-length hitter at best on the 7,400-yard, par-70 Firestone South, he'd opened the Bridgestone with a 7-under-par 63, just a stroke off the course record. He led through the next two rounds and went into Sunday ahead of his playing partners, Louis Oosthuizen by a stroke and Bradley by four. Coming to the 18th, he was still up one on Bradley.

Furyk opened the final round with three straight birdies, then settled down into a grind of pars interrupted only by a bogey at No. 6 and a birdie at the 16th, which Bradley matched to keep the one-stroke edge.

Furyk got a break at the 18th. His stray tee shot bounced off a tree and into the fairway. But he put his second into the rough just behind a greenside bunker. Bradley, on the other hand, caught that bunker with his approach. He was looking dead. The ball was almost completely plugged.

"I definitely would have taken Jim's," Bradley admitted, asked which shot he would have preferred.

Furyk's short pitch cleared the bunker but didn't reach the green, ending up in heavy grass. Then his chip from there was weak, leaving him five feet from the pin.

Bradley, meanwhile, had blasted brilliantly out of the bunker. The ball curled and stopped about 16 feet past the pin. He dropped it for his par. Furyk had to make his five-footer for bogey to tie Bradley and force a playoff.

His putter fell from his hands before the ball even got near the hole. It was sailing wide to the right and left him about four feet coming back. He holed that one for a double-bogey six, a 69, and a tie for second a stroke back with Steve Stricker, who closed with three straight birdies for a 64.

"It was a really terrible putt," Furyk said. "I turned a five into a six and lost on the last hole. There's no way I should have made double-bogey."

Bradley trailed by six after Furyk's three opening birdies, but he didn't flinch. Furyk bogeyed No. 6, and Bradley jumped at the opportunity and dropped a 41-foot putt for a birdie at No. 7. He added birdies at the 10th and 11th, and got to within a stroke with a birdie on the 14th.

Said Bradley: "I just kept telling myself to stay patient and just hang around. You just never know what's going to happen." It was a lesson he learned, also last year, the week after his Bridgestone collapse. At the PGA Championship, he triple-bogeyed the 15th in the final round, trailed Jason Dufner by five with only three holes to play, then caught a fading Dufner and beat him in a playoff.

Oostuizen, playoff runner-up in the Masters in April, started the final round a stroke behind Furyk, but stumbled to three bogeys in six holes and closed with a 69 for solo fourth. Rory McIlroy, who had been sprinkling missed cuts all over the place, shot 68 and tied for fifth with Justin Rose (67).

Actually, this was Tiger Woods' tournament to lose. Not to win or lose. Just to lose. History and smart money said he'd already won just by showing up at Firestone South. He owned such a chunk of Firestone he ought to be on the board of directors. In 12 previous visits, he won seven times and $9.5 million. And he had won three times this season, clearly improved from his scandals, surgeries and swing changes.

Thus, by any measure, all he had to do was stick a peg in the friendly soil of Firestone South. But before long, he was talking newspeak - muttering about cabbages and kings again.

A year ago, Woods was talking about compression, patterns, deviation and others. This time, hunting for a putting stroke, he was speaking of "paths." He wasn't merely missing short or medium-length putts, he was five and six inches wide of the hole. Maybe it was a problem of rhythm, someone asked.

"No," Woods said, "it was more path than anything else. I had my lines good, but it's just setting my path out. I was trying to marry the two."

Woods wasn't a threat, but he found enough to close with a 66 and tie for eighth, an encouraging note as he heads for this week's PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, S.C.

Meanwhile, Keegan Bradley goes to South Carolina on an unexpected high to try and retain the Wanamaker Trophy. He's carrying a little less baggage than last year.

Marino Parascenzo can assure you that hanging around with great and famous pro golfers does nothing to help your game. They just won't give you the secret. But it makes for a dandy career. As a sportswriter with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (now retired), Parascenzo covered the whole gamut of sports - Steelers, Pirates, Penguins, Pitt, Penn State and others - but golf was his favorite. As the beat writer for the paper, he covered all the stateside majors and numerous other pro events, and as a freelancer handled reporting duties for the British Open and other tournaments overseas - in Britain, Spain, Italy, the Caribbean, South Africa, China and Malayasia. Marino has won more than 20 national golf-writing awards, along with state and regional awards. He has received the Memorial Tournament's Golf Journalism Award and the PGA of America's Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism. His writing has appeared in numerous magazines, among them Sports Illustrated, Golf Digest and Golf Magazine, and in anthologies and foreign publications. He also wrote the history of Oakmont Country Club. Parascenzo is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America and is on its board of directors. He is the founder and chairman of the GWAA's Journalism Scholarship Program. He is a graduate of Penn State and was an adjunct instructor in journalism at Pitt.