Keegan Bradley’s golf career has followed the trajectory of a ball hit from behind a tree, narrowly avoiding a branch then soaring high through the air, finishing on the green 30 feet from the pin. The muted response from the gallery suggests a tinge of disappointment, but it was a pretty damn good shot.
His outsider status has in many ways shaped his relationship with the game. Bradley comes from Vermont, an area not known for producing top golfers, and went to a college that would seldom appear on any list of top golf schools. But he persisted, and from relative anonymity produced a rookie season that nobody saw coming, winning the PGA Championship and the HP Byron Nelson Championship. Although he hasn’t won a major since, Bradley has been a consistent fixture at the top level, only twice falling outside the top 100 in the world. Then, in the 2022-23 season, he produced one of his best campaigns to date, winning at the ZOZO Championship and the Travelers Championship, an especially poignant victory at the closest stop the tour makes to his hometown.
In a season that was to have its last hurrah in Rome, it led to the inevitable question, could Bradley make his third Ryder Cup team, and his first one since 2014? Ultimately, he wasn’t selected, with Vice Captain Fred Couples suggesting he was left off for not being one of the boys. Suffice to say, it was a huge disappointment to Bradley, especially considering the fond memories he has of playing in the competition.
The Ryder Cup happens to be where Bradley met 7-time NBA Champion (golf aficionado) Michael Jordan. In golf, a lot is made of his relationship with the basketball and footwear legend. Now over 10 years since they met, Bradley remains one of the few Jordan ambassadors in professional golf. Of those, he’s the only one who wears a shoe that was intentionally designed for him, and for golf. And in a world where silhouettes like the AJ1 Low have broken into the pro circuit, Bradley maintains that ‘he’s always considered his shoes to be part of his equipment.’ Which is to say, don’t expect to see him stepping into a pair of basketball shoes when it’s go time.
Bradley’s relationship with MJ, often referenced but less-so explored, provided the initial spark for our conversation.
HB: Growing up in Vermont and going to St John’s University, that’s not a typical path for a pro golfer is it?
KB: Yeah, I took a much different route to the PGA TOUR than 99% of the guys out there. If you just took my upbringing in New England, that’s enough to be different. But I didn’t get a lot of attention coming out of high school for college golf. I had done pretty well, I had won state amateurs and stuff, but I just didn’t get the attention coming out of New England. But coach Frank Darby [from St John's] saw some potential in me, he offered me a full scholarship and that was really that. I was gonna go anywhere that offered me that.
Did having to fight for recognition shape your outlook on the game?
I feel like my whole career I’ve had to earn everything that I’ve gotten. I wasn’t going to get sponsor’s invites. I wasn’t going to get any sort of special treatment for my golf. I had to go out there, earn it, and go to tour school. And I’ve taken that sort of mentality with me, even today I still feel like I have a lot to prove to myself and others to show what type of player I am. And I guess that’s been ingrained in me since I was a kid.
Let’s go back to the Travelers Championship win. We’re in a period where people are discussing competing tours and earnings versus legacy. But can you quantify the value of a win like that, doing it in New England and having your family there?
No, I don’t think you can because it was so important to everybody around me. We all rent a house there every year, and that night everyone came back to the house and I had a moment where I was looking around at everyone’s faces, just soaking it all in. It really gave me this appreciation of how much it meant to my whole family, and it was one of the most special moments of my life.
We’d love to know about your relationship with Michael Jordan and how that came about.
I met Michael at the 2012 Ryder Cup in Chicago. He loves the Ryder Cup, and he came and spoke to our team and was inside the ropes watching us play. He lives in the area that I live in and plays at the same courses, and it’s very rare that I find somebody that loves the game of golf like I do.
Michael, honestly, he wants to play all the time. He’s just the greatest guy, I can’t say enough about him. I strive to be a lot like him, but more off the course than athletically. He’s just a considerate, generous guy and we kicked off a really nice friendship from there.
What’s it like playing golf with him?
It’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of fun doing anything with Michael. He’s got something that most people don’t have. I don’t know what it is, but he’s got it. He’s just fun to be around. You could be playing golf, you could be doing the most boring thing and it’s fun to be around him. But playing golf is great because you get to see his competitive side. You can see he’s got an instinct in him that is there with whatever he does. But you can see it in golf and he’s a great player.
Is it in some ways easier for you to relate with other professional athletes?
For sure. If I run into an NBA player or an NFL player, there’s a bond. They get it. They know the struggle of working hard, getting up early and training consistently. There’s an understanding there that doesn’t need to be really said. And it’s really fun for me, I would think it is for all athletes, to get to know and learn from people playing other sports.
And living in Jupiter, Florida enables that, doesn’t it?
I think Jupiter is the best place in the world for me to live and do what I do, just because the golf courses and the practice facilities here are incredible. And then you’re around other world-class players, so if you wanna get a game together, you could get a game with JT [Justin Thomas], Rory [McIlroy] and Rickie [Fowler]. And no question, I mean, down the list. So it’s really fun to go to the course and see all the best players out there working. Something about that is really motivating.
“You never know who you’re gonna see [at The Grove XXIII], whether it be a Hall of Fame athlete or a CEO of a huge company.”
That makes sense, it’s essentially your version of an office and you’re out there with your coworkers.
Yeah, for sure. And it’s been fun for me to watch guys that work really hard and do well. Like watching Matt Fitzpatrick, he worked really hard and it’s great to see guys like that having success.
When you’re home, where do you practice most of the time? Do you like to switch it up?
I mean I play at The Grove [XXIII] 98% of the time, just because the practice facility is the best and it’s such a fun place to go every day. I just love going there, you never know who you’re gonna see there, whether it be a Hall of Fame athlete or a CEO of a huge company. It’s just an exciting place and it’s a fun place to go.
I’m sure you’ve had some interesting conversations there.
Yeah one of my favorite things at The Grove is when there’s a rain delay. The horn will sound because of lightning, and everyone comes in and hangs out together. And there’s something about The Grove, one of my favorite things is that everybody is on the same level. No one’s higher or lower. Everybody’s there to have a great time, and there’s just this understanding of how lucky you are to be out there.
“I flew out to Oregon [with Nike] and did hours and hours of tests. They build a shoe with the same detail that somebody would build a race car.”
It’s interesting to think about that in the context of PGA TOUR vs LIV. It’s often presented as this divide but when you see everyone at the Grove, it sounds like they’re just your friends at the end of the day.
Yeah. I mean the outside world makes a pretty big deal of this LIV vs PGA TOUR thing. But with the players there’s no issue there at all. When I go up to the Grove I see DJ and Brooks all the time. I’m not upset with them, I haven’t seen anybody that is to be honest. So there are no issues there.
Going back to that Jordan conversation, can you tell us about your custom shoe, the design process and how it’s evolved over the years?
Yeah, so I was talking to MJ [back in 2012] and I was wondering if he ever had an interest in doing a golf shoe, and he was really excited. So I flew out to Oregon and did hours and hours of tests. They build a shoe with the same detail that somebody would build a race car, right down to the length of the shoe laces.
I like a really stiff golf shoe, I like to feel as if it’s almost a boot. So I made some adjustments to a stereotypical golf shoe. I raised the sides up a little so there’s a little more support. I wear almost two sizes smaller golf shoes than I do sneakers, and my left foot is a little bit smaller than my right. So they dialed the shoe in for my foot.
The first generation, the tongue was a little bit narrow and when it rained my socks would get wet. So I just mentioned it to them and they made the tongue wider. But the shoe for me is super functional. I could wear my shoes right out of the box on a tournament day. So it’s really helpful.
It sounds pretty different from the Jordans you’re starting to see on tour. For example, the ones Nelly Korda or Tony Finau wear, those are lifestyle shoes that have been turned into golf shoes. Whereas the ones that you’re wearing were designed for golf first and foremost.
I’ve always considered my golf shoes part of my equipment, and I want them to be super dialed in. I’m blown away with guys that wear different styles of golf shoes day-to-day. Like PGA TOUR players will wear a FootJoy on Thursday and then a Nike on Friday. The height is different, the feel is different.
The shoes that I wear are specifically made for me. It’s really helpful because no matter where I am in the world, the only thing I can control is my shoes. It can be soft, it can be firm, it can be windy. And I can maybe switch my driver shaft out for a certain course. But my only connection to the ground is the golf shoes. And I want that to be the same and consistent every single place I go.
You must have a pretty big collection.
I do, I have a lot of shoes. Since I’m a Jordan Brand ambassador, I get an automatic shipment, so every quarter I’ll get a billion shoes. I actually had to get a storage unit because they come so often. But I have a few really special shoes that I cherish that I’ve gotten maybe from MJ or from the Jordan Brand. I threw the first pitch at Fenway Park this past year and I got my family matching Jordan 1s, so those are special. I have those in my office and I have a few other specific pairs that I love.
What are some of those other ones?
My favorites would have to be the ones I wore at the Masters that had MJ’s 45 on the side of them. it almost looked like a jersey print. I only wore them for one tournament because I loved them so much, I have those displayed in my office. I have some of the original golf shoes that we made. We went through a bunch of different samples before I started wearing them on tour.
And then I have some gifts here or there that I really love. I have a pair of Jordan 1 Lows in my office that are signed by MJ and Tinker [Hatfield], which is pretty cool. As a kid, I was so obsessed with Michael Jordan and Jordan shoes, so it’s surreal to be a part of that company.
With some of those other non-golf pairs you receive, will you wear those out and about or on a practice day?
I pretty much only wear the Jordan 1 Lows or the Low 11s. But when my buddies come over, they always raid my stash and take a billion pairs and I’m happy to do that. They just have to be a size 12 and even if they’re not, they figure out a way to wear them.
On a separate note, let’s go back to those early years when you were working towards the PGA TOUR. For people who aren’t so familiar with golf, it’s a lot less glamorous than it seems, no?
Yeah, it is. I was lucky enough to have my buddy John [Curran] out there with me and I traveled a bunch with Manny [Villegas], Camilo’s brother. But I was out there, I had to make money. I didn’t come from a family with a lot of money, so my mini tour days were a little different. I had to make money every week to keep playing. But it was such a fun time because I had dreamt of turning pro my whole life.
And then once I got out there, it really was not glamorous. You’re grinding, you’re driving to every tournament, staying in hotels with other guys. But I look back on it now, it’s probably my favorite time as a professional.
Lastly, what’s your mindset as you approach the new season, and do you have any reflections on the last one?
Well I think for all athletes, the mindset is last year’s gone. I am happy and it’s been great, but I wanna have a better year next year. So I gotta get back to work. I gotta work harder than I ever have. I have a lot more goals I want to accomplish. I haven’t had an off season like this in a while where I actually had some time off. So I was able to really get my work done, but also spend time with the family and do some stuff that I’d been wanting to do.
I’m going into my 14th year on the tour next year, and I want it to be my best year ever. So I’m not gonna sit back and think about the year and people who say how good it was. For me, I have a lot of things I’d like to improve on.