Keegan Bradley’s happy place: An itinerary that includes Augusta and a game trending upwards

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ORLANDO – Keegan Bradley has tortured himself the last few years, and he has admitted that he couldn’t help it.

Having won the first major in which he competed, the 2011 PGA Championship, he didn’t much think about missing major championships after that, what with a five-year exemption into each except the PGA, which he can play as long as he wants and is capable.

Then the 2017 Masters came around, and he was not in the field. Same thing last year – no Masters. “It’s just brutal not to be there,” he said.

Which he made worse by watching it on television. But he couldn’t help it. “It’s the Masters. You always have to watch it,” Bradley said. “Yeah, I guess I am torturing myself. That’s the hardest part, having to watch it [from home]. It’s just brutal not to be there at a major – especially the Masters. That’s always a big indication of where you are in the game.”

That Bradley will return to Augusta National Golf Club next month is a good hint he’s returning to a good place in the game. Another is the five-under-par 67 he fired Thursday in the opening round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Bradley’s bogey-free effort at Bay Hill Club and Lodge has him sitting in second place, two strokes behind Spain’s Rafael Cabrera Bello.

Bradley struggled early in his round but cobbled together pars until finding a rhythm. Then he enjoyed a relatively stress-free remainder of his day.

“Yeah, my first probably four or five holes were not very pretty, and I grinded those and made some pars. And then I started to hit the ball a lot better after that and then made those putts. It was great.”

Making putts is something Bradley did with more regularity before anchored putting was outlawed beginning in 2016. No surprise that after that ruling he began to repel down the world rankings and qualifying for majors no longer was so automatic. He still struggles with putting, he said, something that has prevented him from taking advantage of his still-effective long game.

“It’s just a matter of putting at this point,” said Bradley, 31, who had 27 putts on Thursday to complement ranking third in the field in strokes gained—tee to green. “So when I go out and have a round like that, or putt like that, normally it’s going to be pretty good, so I got to keep that going.”

Ranked 32nd in the world, Bradley, 32 years old, locked up his return invitation to the Masters when he defeated Justin Rose in a playoff to win the BMW Championship last September. It was the fourth win of his PGA Tour career, but his first since the 2012 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational in Akron, Ohio.

He hasn’t missed a cut this season and, in fact, has played on the weekend in 18 straight starts since failing to compete in the final two rounds of last year’s U.S. Open. That’s where he is in the game, getting more consistent, playing the kind of golf that is good enough to win again.

Coming off a T-10 at the WGC-Mexico Championship, Bradley likes how his game is trending. And he likes even more that it’s trending while again preparing for the year’s first major championship.

“I do feel like I should play well there, but for whatever reason I haven’t played my best,” he said, having finished no better than T-22 in his five appearances. “It’s a tricky little place. I’m going to go about it a little differently there this time, and I’m hoping that it works out better for me.”

No matter what happens, it will be a happier April than the last two years.

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