Keegan Bradley will be big hometown favorite in final round

BROOKLINE, Mass. — Keegan Bradley was in his element. He was in a place he had always dreamed of being since he was a sports-junkie kid growing up in Vermont.

He was at home plate in Fenway Park as a member of the Red Sox.

He was on the parquet floor at Boston Garden playing for the Celtics.

He was at Gillette Stadium on a Sunday wearing a Patriots uniform.

Bradley was in all of those places at once as he walked down the 18th fairway at The Country Club late Saturday afternoon, about to close out his third round of the U.S. Open with the crowds cramming the ropes around the green chanting, “Keegan, Keegan, Keegan.’’

Bradley, who shot a second consecutive 1-under 69 on Saturday to get to 2-under for the tournament and just two shots out of the lead held by Will Zalatoris and Matthew Fitzpatrick, had played himself into contention to win his cherished home game U.S. Open.

Shortly after he finished playing, the echoes of those “Keegan, Keegan, Keegan’’ chants were still ringing, like beautiful music, in his ears.

“Honestly, it was one of the most amazing moments of my entire life,’’ an emotional Bradley said afterward. “I got to feel what it feels like to play in Fenway, to play in the Garden, to play in Gillette Stadium. I felt like a Boston player there. That was a moment I’ll never forget the rest of my life, and I appreciate the fans giving me that, and I hope to have them cheer again [Sunday].’’

Keegan Bradley hits a shot on the fifth hole during the third round of the U.S. Open.
Keegan Bradley hits a shot on the fifth hole during the third round of the U.S. Open.
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Bradley closing the deal and capturing the 122nd U.S. Open less than three hours from where he grew up would be epic.

“As a kid, I dreamed of playing in front of Boston fans and being a Patriot or being in the Garden,’’ Bradley said. “Most of the time I’m playing across the world or the country, and I’m by myself. Out here today, felt like I was in a home game, which is something that as a kid … it’s a dream.’’

Frank Darby, who coached Bradley when he played his college golf at St. John’s, watched from his home in Connecticut on Saturday and recognized exactly what he’d seen all those years back in Queens — a tenacious, unafraid player who thrives in the difficult conditions The Country Club dished out in the third round, with dropping temperatures and whipping winds.

“He’s a sports junkie he feeds off all that stuff,’’ Darby told The Post over the phone. “He’s not afraid. He’s passionate about everything. The one thing that’s helped him is these great players he’s been around — [Tom] Brady, he’s around Michael Jordan, he’s around Jack Nicklaus, lives in Nicklaus’ club [in Florida]. He feeds of all these great players, because he wants to be like them.’’

Keegan Bradley pumps his face while playing the 18th hold in the third round of the U.S. Open.
Keegan Bradley pumps his face while playing the 18th hold in the third round of the U.S. Open.
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Success came early for Bradley, who won the PGA Championship in 2011, his first year on the PGA Tour, and was named Rookie of the Year for it. That win earned him status at all the big events, fast-tracked him onto Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup teams (on which he thrived).

Then the grueling mind-bend of golf and life took hold of him for several years and his game went lost in the wilderness. Suddenly, Bradley was no longer automatically in the majors and red-carpeted into the team event.

That ate at him, made him realize he had taken those things for granted, because they came to him so quickly.

From 2012 to 2018, he played 165 tournaments without a win until ending the drought with a win at the BMW Championship. His form has been better since, and his world ranking is back up to 47th.

It’s possible the pressure Bradley put on himself to simply get into the field for this U.S. Open was greater than it has been these past three days while he actually has been playing in the tournament.

“I saw it was on the schedule and the first thought is, ‘Oh, man, I have to play, now this has become stressful,’ ’’ he said.

When he bogeyed Nos. 2, 3 and 6 Saturday, Bradley’s dream of winning his home U.S. Open was slipping away. He was 3-over and Scottie Scheffler, the world No. 1, had gotten to 6-under and was looking ready to run away.

Bradley rallied with birdies on Nos. 8 and 9, and that changed everything.

“I made this putt on 9 and crowd went wild,’’ he said. “It really gave me a jolt of energy. I felt it. I could feel it go. I could feel the energy change. It put me on a path to, ‘All right, we no longer are trying to save this round. Let’s try to get ourselves into contention here.’ And I did that.’’

Now what? Is there one more magical day in store for the hometown kid?

“Tomorrow is going to be a tough day,’’ Bradley said. “I know that. It just is. It would be if I was playing in Tulsa. But playing here, it’s going to be intense, but I’ve had this weird sense of calm over me this week. I don’t know if that will be here tomorrow or not.’’

If it is, then Bradley will truly have his Tom Brady, Roger Clemens and Larry Bird moment.

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