MEDINAH, Ill. — As a passionate Boston sports fan, Keegan Bradley has had plenty of opportunity to see great games over the years at the Garden, Fenway, and Foxborough.
Titles have been won by the Red Sox, Celtics, Bruins, and Patriots, championship parades have been held, and Bradley has proudly celebrated, along with thousands of others. But it’s another team event in Boston that still ranks as his all-time favorite.
“I went to the ’99 Ryder Cup,” said Bradley, referring to the dramatic matches at The Country Club in Brookline, won on the final day by Team USA. “Greatest sporting event I’ve ever been to.”
Bradley was 13 then, interested in skiing as much as golf, but destined for a path that would lead him away from the slopes of Vermont and to Hopkinton High, St. John’s University, and golf’s minor leagues before he reached the PGA Tour and tasted the kind of early success that few, if any, could have ever foreseen.
He’ll be on the other side of the spectator ropes at the 39th Ryder Cup. No longer a gangly teenager losing his voice screaming wildly for the Americans, Bradley will be receiving those patriotic cheers that rain down when 12 of the best US golfers square off against their counterparts from Europe at Medinah Country Club. The three-day competition starts Friday morning.
If you’ve ever seen Bradley play, it doesn’t take long to spot the intensity he brings to the golf course, or the emotion. He appears to be a perfect fit for the Ryder Cup, and might be one of the few first-timers — there are five this week, including four on the US side — who won’t let the stage or the pressure that comes with it rattle him. In fact, Bradley has embraced the scene, ever since his first practice round Tuesday.
“It was basically a Sunday crowd at a major, and it was a Tuesday here,” said Bradley. “Pretty special atmosphere, pretty intense, and I assume come Friday, these fans are going to be ready to rock and roll.
“Walking to the first tee was probably the proudest moment of my entire career, and it happened on a Tuesday at the Ryder Cup. It’s been a dream of mine to be on a team like this.”
Bradley will be joined by three other Ryder Cup rookies — Jason Dufner, Webb Simpson, and Brandt Snedeker — playing for captain Davis Love. They might be tasting the matches for the first time, but they’ve already established themselves as experienced PGA Tour winners. All four won tournaments this year; two own majors (Simpson this year’s US Open, Bradley the 2011 PGA Championship); and Snedeker captured the tour’s FedEx Cup title by winning the Tour Championship last week.
Scared? Not these newbies.
“Confidence right now is at an all-time high. I’m playing the best golf of my career, backed it up with taking a lead into Sunday last week and winning with the lead for the first time,” said Snedeker, who comes in almost as hot as European rock Rory McIlroy, with last week’s win following strong tournaments at the Barclays (second) and Deutsche Bank (sixth). “I beat some of the best players in the world last weekend. So I feel like my game is exactly where it needs to be.
“Friday morning can’t get here quick enough. I’m ready to go. I’d love to tee it up tomorrow and play 36 a day, because I’m playing good and I want to get out there and try to get some points for Captain Love.”
Three of the four US Ryder Cup rookies earned their way here through a two-year points system weighted heavily toward 2012. Only Snedeker was a captain’s pick, and if his recent play is any indication, Love won’t be questioned about rolling the dice on him.
Bradley clinched his spot by winning the Bridgestone Invitational, then finishing tied for third the next week at the PGA Championship. It took some of the sting away from not making last year’s Presidents Cup team, and has given him yet another sign that he has earned a seat at the table next to some of the same players he was rooting for 13 years ago at The Country Club.
“A lot of pinch-yourself moments the last couple years. That seems to happen almost every week,” Bradley said. “Sitting around the team room with Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson] and guys of that stature, it’s kind of a smack in the face, where I am.
“Sometimes it’s all happening so fast, you kind of don’t catch it, and there’s times this week where I’ve said, ‘I’m in the same room with these guys,’ and that’s pretty special.”
With three wins (two in playoffs) and six other top-10 finishes in his brief PGA Tour career, Bradley is building a reputation of a winner. For someone without a lot of experience — he won a major on his first try — he’s certainly drawing attention and praise from those who do.
“I’m going to be playing a lot with Keegan, it’s no secret here,” said Mickelson, who will make US Ryder Cup history by playing for a ninth time, and will partner with Bradley in the second foursomes match Friday morning against Sergio Garcia and Luke Donald.
“It’s fun playing with Keegan because this is his first event, first team event. He is so excited, and that exuberance and energy that he brings, you feed off of it.”
Bradley didn’t play in the Walker Cup, and hasn’t played in the Presidents Cup. But he is no stranger to US team play, having watched his aunt, Pat Bradley, compete in multiple Solheim Cups. One of the first things he did this week was take a picture of his golf bag, with his name and “USA” featured prominently, and text it to Pat.
“Just to get her excited,” he said. “She brings an intensity to the game, and that’s what I hope she passed on to me.”
Love wants that from all four of his rookies, knowing that one-third of his team might not have any Ryder Cup experience, but with all four ranked high (Simpson eighth, Dufner ninth, Snedeker 10th, Bradley 14th), expectations won’t be lowered.
“They may be rookies here at the Ryder Cup, but they’re major championship winners, they’re FedEx Cup winners,” Love said. “They’ve done a lot, they’ve played a lot of great golf, and they’re really comfortable, confident guys.”
Having veterans around can certainly help the rookies from a preparation standpoint. How much rest should they get? How nervous will they be? Soon, they’ll be thrown into the mix, carrying the hopes of a nation on their accomplished shoulders. It’s an honor and a responsibility that none take lightly, but it’s also a moment that can’t be duplicated until their first Ryder Cup match arrives.
Bradley has already seen a sliver of it. In fact, it’s been that way ever since he and his teammates arrived at Medinah Tuesday — a loud, energetic welcome that isn’t terribly different from the ones in 1999.
“Oh my God, I’ve had the most fun I’ve maybe ever had on a golf course,” Bradley said. “I kind of expect that to happen every day this week.”Michael Whitmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeWhitmer.