Keegan Bradley’s birdie train, a reliable mode of transportation to the top of the HP Byron Nelson Championship leader board for three consecutive days, jumped the tracks in swirling wind gusts during Sunday’s final round.
Bradley, the 2011 Nelson champion who seemed destined for a wire-to-wire title run after Thursday’s course-record 60, finally fell back to the pack over the final three holes in crunch time at the Four Seasons Resort.
The same guy who bagged 10 birdies in his opening round merely matched that total over his final 54 holes. Only one, at No. 15, came during Sunday’s closing 72 at the TPC Las Colinas, played in winds that gusted to 40 mph.
Bradley’s 18-foot birdie putt dropped on the same green where playing partner Sang-Moon Bae took his third score of bogey or worse in a seven-hole stretch to squander a four-stroke lead. All the momentum, as well as the crowd, seemed to be on the side of Bradley, who said he “felt like Phil” Mickelson as he stepped to the 16th tee with a share of the lead.
But the birdie train stopped running, punctuated by a missed 4-footer at No. 16 that Bradley will lament for the foreseeable future.
“When I made that putt on 15, I was pretty confident that I was going to win this tournament,” Bradley said. “I live for those moments. I love them. That’s why I wish I could have that putt over on 16. It just broke a ton. I don’t think I pulled it, but it just snapped. I didn’t expect it. I’m so disappointed.”
After Bae buried a 5-footer for birdie at No. 16 to take a one-stroke lead, Bradley compounded his mistake by airmailing the 17th green with a 6-iron from the tee at the par-3 hole. He scrambled for bogey, giving back another stroke that Bae turned in a two-shot triumph in his Nelson debut, his first career victory as a PGA Tour competitor.
Bradley, 26, scored his first tour triumph at the 2011 Nelson, which he used as a springboard to PGA Tour Rookie of the Year honors, his first major championship (2011 PGA) and a berth on the 2012 U.S. Ryder Cup team. His comfort level at this course, where his career scoring average is 68.7, is off the charts. That explains why Bradley, a Vermont native, has a love affair with the Nelson course and its fans.
“I feel like every time I come here, I’m going to have a chance,” Bradley said. “I’m hoping to come here for another 20 years so, hopefully, I can get another one or two.”
Just the same, Bradley said it “would have been special” to have joined the list of multiple Nelson winners in only his third appearance at the event. In many ways, the most puzzling part of Sunday’s final round is how he let this one slip through his fingers after Bae, who closed with a 69, brought him back into the fray with a double bogey and two bogeys during the middle of his round.
Obviously, the whistling winds played a major role. Bradley’s closing 72 matched his highest career score at the TPC course. His sharpness, Bradley said, eluded him on the greens and down the stretch.
He split just 7 of 14 fairways, matching his lowest total of tournament week, and found only 11 of 18 greens in regulation. Bradley needed 31 putts to complete his round, seven more than during Thursday’s record-setting performance. The bottom line, Bradley said, is that Bae made more telling shots in what he described as “brutal” scoring conditions.
“This is just one of those days that you hang on,” Bradley said. “Moon played better than me. He deserved to win. He shot 1 under today, which is probably equivalent to shooting 5 or 6 under.”
Bradley, a human birdie machine for 54 holes, could not muster one in crunch time Sunday at one of his favorite courses. Bae, a Korean national who lives in Los Angeles, collected five and talked openly about moving to Dallas in the near future.
“I love this place,” Bae said. “I will move to Dallas. Easy traveling everywhere.”
But not an easy place, in Sunday’s final round, to keep the birdie train on the tracks. Bradley learned that the hard way.
“Any time you contend, it’s a positive,” Bradley said. “When I do put myself there, I try to relish it and enjoy it. And I do. But I come to every tournament to win. And I’ll think about that putt on 16 a lot.”
It’s a big reason why Bradley is not already a member of the two-win club at the Byron Nelson tournament.