The Curious Case of Keegan Bradley

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After bursting on to the scene in 2011 and 2012, Keegan Bradley’ has been winless over the past six seasons.

Keegan Bradley burst onto the PGA TOUR scene as a rookie in 2011 by winning two events including the PGA Championship at the Atlanta Athletic Club. As a promising ball striker with a serviceable short game, Bradley quickly propelled into the top 20 in the Official World Golf Rankings where he became a fixture for the better part of three years.

Along with Bradley’s instant success came two Ryder Cup appearances (2012 and 2014) and a President’s Cup appearance (2013). But since the hot start, there has been a significant drop off in performance over the past five years.

While younger, and more talented, players like Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, and Rickie Fowler have become dominant forces on TOUR in this time frame, Bradley is still among the elite ball strikers in the world. In fact, he’s just as good from tee to green now than he was when he became one of golf’s most promising young players just 7 years ago.

sg keegan

A quick glance shows that Bradley has retained his ball striking ability while getting surpassed by countless players in terms of accolades. He is a fixture in the top 30-40 in strokes gained tee to green year in and year out and his approach player has actually been significantly better after his two-win 2011 season and early-career success.

So, all of this raises an interesting question – what happened to Keegan Bradley’s game over the past five years?

Life After the Anchor Ban

The obvious answer to this question is his putter. Quite simply, it stinks. I hid the SG: Putting column in the TOUR ranks graphic above. It’s ugly, but here it is:

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Ever since the anchor ban went into effect in 2016, Bradley’s short game has been lost. While players like Adam Scott and Webb Simpson have been able to adapt and see success post anchor ban, Bradley continues to search for answers with no avail.

He is among the first to admit how deeply the change had gotten under his skin. “It frustrated me,” Bradley said of the anchoring ban to Golf Digest in 2016. “In the back of your mind you’re always thinking, ‘Man if I still had it.’

Caught in a Webb

Taking a quick look at Bradley’s tee to green stats since 2011 compared to Webb Simpson, they have actually been on a similar trajectory.

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Over the past seven years, Bradley has gained an average of 0.899 strokes tee to green while Simpson has gained 1.003 on the field. On the greens, Bradley averaged 0.210 strokes on the field putting pre-anchor ban while Simpson gained 0.274. After the anchor ban went into effect, both players had similar struggles putting. The major difference here is that Simpson managed to regain his form while Bradley continues to flounder.

After ranking inside the top 50 on TOUR in strokes gained putting from 2012-2014, Bradley hasn’t finished higher than 128th in this metric in the five years since. (He adapted to the new rule later in the 2015 season in an attempt to get ahead of the curve). And at 193rd so far in 2018, he’s a safe bet to finish close to dead last this season.

Webb Simpson is currently sitting at 21st in the Official World Golf Rankings (OWGR), largely due to a win at THE PLAYERS in May where he lapped the field with his short game and is currently 8th in the Ryder Cup points standings. So, now the question has become – why can’t Keegan Bradley figure it out?

He is gaining nearly two times more strokes than Webb Simpson from tee to green, a mark that puts him in elite territory for the 2018 season. However, his elite tee to green game has only netted him 4 top 10 finishes in 22 starts and he sits at 65th in the OWGR despite being lights out in some of the most important stat categories on TOUR.

As seen below, Bradley’s ball striking game has continued to trend upwards over the past five winless years. He is gaining slightly less strokes off the tee than his torrid 2011 and 2012 seasons, but his approach play is squarely in elite territory – second to only Henrik Stenson this season, one of the best ball strikers of all time.

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Theory: Putting is Variable and Bad Putters Win

The fact that he hasn’t been in the winner’s circle in 6 years is truly baffling.  As one of the best ball strikers in the world (statistically), you would think that Bradley would tend to get lucky on the greens once or twice a year and make a serious run at winning a tournament. I mean bad putters can get hot and win at any time – I would think that it has happened year in and year out.

I put this theory to the test by looking at each PGA Tour winner from the 2017 and 2018 seasons (excluding non-full field events like the Puerto Rico Open and the Barbasol Championship) and pulled their strokes gained putting stats for that season. Let’s call it the Keegan test. The results confirmed this theory to be true.

Average Strokes Gained Putting for 2016-2017 TOUR Winners (at season’s end): 81st

Average Strokes Gained Putting for 2017-2018 TOUR Winners (as of RBC Canadian Open): 75th

So, it looks like 81st and 75th would put the typical tournament winner at the middle of the pack in strokes gained putting for the season. Pretty much average. But, as we know, Keegan Bradley is currently well-below average with the putter at this point in his career. Based on this, it looks like he wouldn’t be able to come close to the winner’s circle. Right? Wrong.

A lot of good putters have won tournaments in the past two seasons and just as many average putters have won too. However, bad putters ARE winning too!

I decided to find the worst putters of the winners by sorting through the strokes gained putting metrics for each tournament winner over the past two seasons. It turns out that 11 players ranked outside the top 125 (!) in strokes gained putting for the season have won full-field events since the start of the 2016 wrap around season.

Players Outside Top 125 in SG: Putting and Won Full Field Event in 2016-2017:

Screenshot (19)

Players Outside Top 125 in SG: Putting and Won Full Field Event in 2017-2018:

Screenshot (20)

Even the worst of the worst with the flat stick are winning tournaments – shout out to Brendan Steele on back to back Safeway Open wins (I’m considering a tournament with Phil Mickelson to be full-field – so if you want to scratch that let’s call in 9).

So, it just seems odd that Keegan Bradley is unable to catch a break on the greens and get a win for just one week. For how good he’s been tee to green over the past five or six years, these numbers confirm that Bradley should have at least come across ONE win. Even an average week on the greens could propel him to a first-place finish.

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Still Trending Up

Despite statistically being one of the worst putters on TOUR for the better part of four years, there is still reason to have a lot of optimism about Keegan Bradley’s future. After spending time in the 100s in the OWGR in 2016 and 2017, Bradley has climbed back into 65th and is fresh off a 4th place finish at the RBC Canadian Open last week. He’s still a world-class iron player and his strokes gained tee to green stats throughout his entire career speak for themselves.

Bradley only managed 5 top-10 finishes in 2015 and 2016, but he has doubled that total in the two years since and his strokes gained approaching the green has never been higher. At 32 years old, it’s still fair to say that Keegan Bradley’s future is bright. A resurgence is right around the corner if his putter can come around with him.

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