Column: A Ryder Cup debut decades in the making
Right guy, right time, and no better place on earth to drop an Ernie Banks reference.
The few Ryder Cup fans who hadn't already fallen for Keegan Bradley because of his spectacular play probably couldn't help themselves after that.
''Oh baby,'' Bradley said in the fading light of an afternoon he didn't want to end, ''I wish we could go 36 more.''
The runaway star of the opening day is a 26-year-old Ryder Cup rookie from New England with an impressive golf pedigree and a major championship already on his resume. Bradley wasn't even born when ''Mr. Cub'' lit up the gloomy half of this old baseball town with his stellar skills and a relentless optimism best captured by Banks' trademark slogan, ''Let's play two today.''
But the only people at Medinah Country Club happy to see Bradley put down his clubs after two matches Friday were Europe's players and their fans. He went off in a morning match with Phil Mickelson and handily put away Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, who hadn't lost in 14 previous alternate-shot matches.
''After that match,'' Mark Bradley said, ''Phil came running up to me yelling, `I love your son. I love his driver. I love his putter.'''
As well Mickelson should.
Besides crushing his drives down the middle of the fairway, or cleaning up approach shots with his deadly broomstick putter, Bradley's upbeat attitude propelled Mickelson down the fairways feeling a lot younger that his 42 years. It marked the first time in nine Ryder Cups that the left-hander won two matches in one day.
But it wasn't just Mickelson who cashed in on Bradley's vibe. His adrenaline gave the entire U.S. squad a lift that was apparent in the 5-3 advantage the Americans built by day's end. Teammates Bubba Watson and Webb Simpson recalled sitting in the clubhouse watching the morning matches while waiting for their turn at the top of the rotation for the afternoon matches,
''We don't have to cheer on Keegan,'' Watson said, ''he does that for himself.''
And that wasn't all. Bradley made the match-winner in the morning, dropping a 25-footer at No. 15 that his caddie celebrated by twirling the flagstick like a one-man pep band. Then he promptly birdied No. 1 in the afternoon better-ball match, the first of a half-dozen birdies Bradley dropped to keep the Europeans at bay. Mickelson shut the door on that match by parking his 7-iron tee shot at the par-3 17th to 2 feet. He barely had time to react before Bradley was at his side, throwing an arm over his shoulder and howling with joy.
''It was a really big deal,'' Mickelson said, ''because he's got such great, positive energy.''
But Mickelson wanted the youngster by his side for more than an emotional lift. Six years ago, he took his family skiing at Jackson Hole in Wyoming, where Mark Bradley works as a ski instructor in winter and golf pro in the summer. Keegan had done some ski racing and was a college sophomore on the golf team at St. John's, the only big school to offer him a full ride.
''They hit it off,'' Mark Bradley recalled, ''but who would have dreamed a half-dozen years later, they'd be playing partners on a Ryder Cup team?''
Mickelson, probably. Because not long after Bradley made his way onto the PGA Tour, he offered the kid a place in those high-risk, high-reward practice round matches where a lot of money can change hands.
When Mickelson turned pro, old hands like Paul Azinger and the late Payne Stewart invited him to play in similar stakes games. Now he returns the favor by bringing promising young players like Bradley, Dustin Johnson and Hunter Mahan into his orbit. Besides, any money Mickelson loses is practically an investment, because the youngsters gain valuable experience at match play and the kind of pressure that comes with having teammates at events like the Ryder and Presidents Cups. It's become a finishing school of sorts.
Yet Bradley was good in the clutch long before Mickelson helped him hone his competitive edges. In addition to being the son of a golf pro, he's also the nephew of LPGA Hall of Famer Pat Bradley, whom renowned sports psychologist Bob Rotella once called the toughest player he ever saw. When Bradley won the PGA Championship in 2011, he talked about following his aunt around at tournaments, ''but she was so into it, she wouldn't even recognize me.''
''And I thought that was cool,'' he recalled.
Some of that toughness no doubt rubbed off on her nephew early. How early came as a surprise even to Mark Bradley, who talked about how he made his son putt out on every hole not long after he started playing.
''And talk about being good under pressure, I'll never forget this,'' his father added. ''We're playing a par-3 course, he's down two holes when we get to the last one and he says, `Dad, you're pressed.' I had no idea he even knew how to bet. He was 8 years old.''
And no doubt already preparing for a day like Friday.
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at http://www.twitter.com/JimLitke