DUBLIN, Ohio — Keegan Bradley had his best round ever at the Memorial on Thursday. It was the way he accomplished that feat that was so unusual.
Bradley did not use a belly putter for the first time in his PGA Tour career, and it worked out just fine. He knocked in a 12-foot birdie putt on his opening hole, added four more birdies for a 5-under 67 and was one shot out of the lead among the early starters at Muirfield Village.
"I’m totally in a trial period here," said Bradley, whose best score in eight previous rounds was a 71. "I’m not in any way saying I’m switching for good from now on. This is just for right now and this week."
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Masters champion Bubba Watson, Chris Kirk and Paul Casey each had a 66 on a hot morning at the Memorial. Adam Scott and Rory McIlroy, both coming off victories on either side of the Atlantic Ocean, were among those playing in the afternoon.
Bradley was the first player to win a major using a belly putter at the 2011 PGA Championship. The anchored stroke used for long putters will be banned starting in 2016, which he said was like a "ticking clock in your head."
But it was advice from his mother, and a week of practice and trash talking with Michael Jordan, that persuaded him to give it a try.
Bradley didn’t like the way he finished off the Byron Nelson Championship two weeks ago, and while talking to his mother, she suggested he go to a shorter putter.
"I hadn’t put any thought into it up until that point," he said. "And so I thought I needed something to get me excited about playing because I was bummed."
Bradley has not won since the Bridgestone Invitational in 2012, and he needs to get moving if he wants to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup team. Inspired to experiment by his mother, he played with Jordan at The Bear’s Club in South Florida, asking him to be relentless in heckling and make Bradley feel uncomfortable, "which he’s good at."
"And we just kept playing and playing. And I felt better and better with it," he said. "And I came here not knowing what I was going to do. I played a round with Brendan Steele and I felt good with it again, and I thought there’s no reason for me not to do it."
Bradley said he last used a conventional putter in 2010 in his second start on the Nationwide Tour. He is not considered a bad putter. Bradley switched over to the belly putter because he felt he was better with it.
His plan for the year was to qualify for the Ryder Cup team and start converting to a shorter putter after October.
Now? Who knows?
The putter is 41 inches, which is about 6 inches longer than a standard putter. The difference is that Bradley doesn’t press the end of it into his belly. He felt better over lag putts, and he said the shorter putter improved his touch on fast greens.
"The negatives are just … I’m aware that people are watching me," he said. "And that’s the hardest part."
Watson also started his round at No. 10 and got going with an eagle on the 15th hole. He finished strong with four birdies over the last five holes, knocking in a 15-foot putt on the ninth hole.
Hunter Mahan had a bogey-free 68, a signal that he is finally starting to round into form. Mahan has not been in the top 20 since the second week of March at Doral.