What Keegan Bradley’s shocking hire tells us about the U.S. Ryder Cup team's future

Sitting in front of the TV, surrounded by his family, watching the one event in the world he cares most about, Keegan Bradley didn’t lament his own absence. He actually foreshadowed his future.

Yes, there were cameras on him. Yes, he had reason to take the high road for Netflix’s “Full Swing” docuseries. But on that couch, Bradley rallied his son to cheer on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. He watched with his hands clenched covering his mouth. And he made another comment that stands out a year later.

“I love these guys, and one of the main reasons I wanted to make this team is I wanted to be around these guys, the energy that they have,” Bradley said. “I see the way (Justin Thomas) prepares and practices, and if I was a captain, I would want him in my locker room.”

If I was a captain.

Bradley, 38, won Season 2 of “Full Swing.” He won the Ryder Cup discourse. He was the veteran who did not get to make the trip to Rome, the one who said that summer “I think about the Ryder Cup every second I’m awake,” who told stories about never opening the 2012 Ryder Cup suitcase in his garage since that infamous Sunday U.S. collapse because he swore to never open it until he won one. That guy — never the most popular player on tour, a self-proclaimed “outsider” in the golf world — became the fan favorite.

Now, as first reported by SI and confirmed by The Athletic, Keegan Bradley is the next U.S. Ryder Cup captain in a shocking move. One that is more than an interesting narrative. It might mean the U.S. is moving in a new direction to the guys who get it — the guys who give a crap.

The move certainly responds to the animosity surrounding the Zach Johnson captaincy in Rome. It’s also a response to the humbling five-point U.S. loss and how it happened. But if we choose to give the PGA of America some credit (debatable!), it’s a response to the overall situation it found itself in this year.

Let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. The U.S. wanted Tiger Woods to captain the American team at Bethpage in 2025. It wanted him so bad it waited into the summer, well past its usual timeline, as Woods considered his future. According to The Telegraph, Woods turned it down, leading to several hours of social media debate Monday morning regarding Plan B candidates like Stewart Cink, Davis Love III and Fred Couples. It all highlighted a long-bubbling concern about a weakening generation of captaincy candidates. Phil Mickelson was long the favorite to be the captain at Bethpage. But between his move to LIV, his war with the PGA Tour and a memoir accusing Mickelson of trying to place bets on a Ryder Cup he was playing in, his chances at the job dwindled. If the U.S. stuck to the usual protocols for picking the next man up, it had to choose between a collection of 50-to-65-year-old former pros who felt representative of the past era.

So instead of choosing one of those three —  all of whom were vice-captains for Johnson last year — the PGA of America decided to dramatically shift how it does things. It went off book.

Bradley cares. A lot. He runs hot, shows emotion and understands the different levels necessary at Ryder Cups. It’s why his story won so many Netflix viewers over. He spent two years in the later stage of his career grinding to have a chance. The decision to pick him shows that is what the U.S. is trying to get back to.

It’s easier to win Ryder Cups on American soil. As a top-to-bottom roster, the U.S. is going to be better most years. It should run away with those, with courses set up to reward American distance. And the naive among us take those blowout wins as major statements. But what Rome taught us — and Paris, and Gleneages before that — is that road Ryder Cups show you who really gets it. Who has it. It’s not just about picking the best 12 golfers in form or stature. You need the personalities who understand it. It’s why Max Homa emotionally dominating the 2022 Presidents Cup and then being the lone U.S. standout in Rome mattered so much. He cemented himself as one of those guys going forward, like Justin Thomas or Jordan Spieth did before him. The U.S. needs to find out who the rest are.

Justin Thomas, left, was picked for the last Ryder Cup team over Bradley. Now the latter will be captain in 2025. (Clare Grant / USA Today)

Thomas and Spieth are often linked to “the boys club” that left Bradley off in Rome. The image from “Full Swing” of Zach Johnson sitting around the table talking to “J-Tizzle,” Spieth and Rickie Fowler did not dissuade that critique. Neither did Johnson picking world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler’s best friend Sam Burns over Bradley.

This isn’t to say Bradley will come in vindictively and cut through decades of those relationships, but picking Bradley the same year in which the masses are clamoring to end that decision-making style feels relevant. Bradley isn’t close with that group. Most of his peers have aged out. His playing partner at the 2012 Ryder Cup was, ironically, Mickelson.

It just makes us wonder if Bradley will represent an emphasis on building a U.S. culture built on the emotion and intensity of cup golf. Not form. Not relationships. Who will step up in Sunday singles and want to take on the top European? He’ll have a decision to make around Thomas and Spieth, two of the top Ryder Cup players of their generation but also well, well down the points standings list at this time.

There are real concerns, of course. Bradley will be the youngest captain in 62 years, since Arnold Palmer was player captain in 1963. Bradley, the 2011 PGA Championship winner, is a very good player, but by no means some powerful icon of his era. There’s no guarantee the superstars of American golf will want to intensely follow him. His “outsider” label works both ways.

Bradley is also currently No. 24 in the Ryder Cup standings. He won two tournaments last season and just finished T2 at the Charles Schwab Challenge. Surely, he will still try to make the team. What happens if Bradleys is 14th in the standings?

We don’t know if this will work. It’s a massive and somewhat reactionary risk, the kind that tends to either blow up in your face or become an enormous success. Few expected this move. Maybe that’s the point.

The only thing we really do know right now? The U.S. team is going to give a crap.

(Top photo: Michael Reaves / Getty Images)

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