Bradley putted beautifully on Thursday during his opening-round 65 at Conway Farms Golf Club. He drained five birdie putts that were 10 feet or longer, but it was a nervy seven-footer that he made to save par on his third-to-last hole that gave him reason to believe that he was on the verge of a really good run.
“I feel a lot more like the person I was out on the course now,” Bradley said, adding, “Really proud of the way I played today.”
Bradley was three strokes behind the leader, the Australian Marc Leishman. Leishman’s countryman Jason Day, playing his first round since deciding to discontinue using his coach, Colin Swatton, as his caddie, sat two behind Leishman after a 64. Day held a share of second with Charley Hoffman and Jamie Lovemark.
On the eve of the first round, Bradley was buoyed by an unexpected text from Phil Mickelson, who might have been feeling nostalgic. Five Septembers ago, Mickelson and Bradley paired for a 3-0 record in the Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club, 37 miles southwest of Conway Farms. Bradley, a rookie, swept the veteran Mickelson along in his cyclonic enthusiasm during the Americans’ upset loss to Europe. Two years later, Bradley was a captain’s pick. He wasn’t included on last year’s winning team.
“Watching the Ryder Cup, I was excited for them but that was tough,” said Bradley, who didn’t post a top-20 finish in the first five months of 2016.
Several players have reached out to Bradley over the past year with words of support. Ernie Els, the former world No. 1 from South Africa, told him about dropping from the top spot to eighth in the world during one of his rough patches. Bradley, whose ranking plummeted from 10th in August 2013 to 120th in June of this year, appreciated Els’s support even if his situation wasn’t exactly analogous.
Throughout all the highs and the lows there has been Mickelson, 47, who on Wednesday wrote to say he was thinking of Bradley, 31, and pulling for him to play well. He predicted that they were both going to have a great week.
“He’s always looking out for me,” Bradley said of Mickelson, who carded a first-round 66.
Both began the week outside the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings. Mickelson is 36th and Bradley 48th, which means they need to finish well here to advance to next week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta.
Bradley hasn’t advanced to the playoff finale since 2013, and he made it his goal at the start of the season to play his way to Atlanta. Toward that end, he has made 29 starts, seven more than both Mickelson and the FedEx Cup points leader, Spieth.
“I put so much work in at home, the last thing I want to do is hit more balls on the range or spend more time on the putting green,” Bradley said. “I just want to be out here. A lot of cool stuff can happen if you do well out here. So I’m in a playing mode.”
The 30 players who advance to the Tour Championship also gain entry into the four majors the next season, which is a huge incentive for Bradley. This year, he failed to qualify for the Masters for the first time since 2011.
“That was awful,” Bradley said. “I normally would go early and practice and play a little bit. That was always superfun for me.” He added: “It’s motivation to play better. Only I can fix that.”
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