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The most successful woman athlete in Panther history reflects on a life well played

The most successful woman athlete in Panther history reflects on a life well played

Pat Bradley opens up about her stellar journey, battles with disease and passion for golf.

March 9, 2020 at 4:24pm

FIU opened in the nick of time for Pat Bradley. The Boston native in 1972 had just earned an associate’s degree from Miami Dade College and began scouting universities in warm places as part of her plan to become a professional golfer.

At the time, FIU had only just welcomed its first students, and Bradley knew nothing about the school nor any sports it might have. So she headed west to Arizona only to find herself miserable. “Being a new Englander, I had a hard time adjusting,” recalls the outdoorswoman, who says the dry desert landscape left her wanting. “I see the beauty now,” adds Bradley, who today divides her time between homes there and in Massachusetts, but back then the absence of lush greenery was a deal-breaker. “I lasted one semester.”

Unhappy and lost—in part because the golf program she had entered lacked organization—Bradley did what any young athlete would: She called her old college coach. It was Mary Daegert who offered news that would change Bradley’s life forever.

“There’s a brand new school opening up in Miami off the Tamiami Trail,” Bradley remembers Daegert telling her and her parents as they together sought her advice. “It might be the perfect place for Pat.”

Four decades and a storied career later, those fateful words have proved profoundly true.

“I have to say it was one of the greatest moments of my life,” she says of contacting FIU. There she met her “guardian angel”— the late Judy Blucker, a founding faculty member and future administrator who made championing women’s sports a personal mission. (A former athlete and coach, Blucker saw FIU open its doors with a handful of intercollegiate men’s sports and vowed to launch the same for women, even coaching the inaugural volleyball and softball teams.)

And out of Bradley’s first campus visit came great news about golf: “There was a team!” she says. “I was it!”

The university hired Daegert, who passed away in 2019, to once again serve as Bradley’s coach, and the whirlwind began as the physical education major juggled coursework with competitions around the state. Within a season, she earned All-America honors, the first FIU student-athlete to do so. She completed her required student teaching at a local school in between qualifying for the Ladies Professional Golf Association, which held its tour school in South Florida.

Bradley’s career took off so rapidly that she accepted her 1974 diploma by mail and only in 1982 returned to formally participate in a commencement ceremony at the invitation of the university. In between those years, she won her first two LPGA major championships as well as several other LPGA events.

“The first year, I made $10,000 and I kind of broke even,” recalls Bradley, who says the four-year degree was backup insurance in case her sports career did not take off. She made ends meet by traveling to competitions by car and staying in private homes. “My second year, I won $28,000 and was able to bank a little bit,” she says. “And then the third year, I won $87,000 and I basically was off and running. I knew that things were going to be OK.”

Triumph after triumph followed, and in 1986 Bradley rose to the very top. She won three of the four LPGA majors (narrowly missing the grand slam), earned more than anyone else on the women’s tour and took Player of the Year honors along with other major recognitions.

Then it all came crashing down.

“After having such a good year, as an athlete you want to validate that great year by continuing it,” Bradley says. Instead, she qualified for fewer tournaments, her earnings plummeted and her health faltered. “I was struggling desperately.”

She chalked up her physical problems—tremors, hair loss, a soaring heart rate—to anxiety and a fear of failing after so much success. “A lot of these symptoms, I thought I was creating myself,” she says. When her mother expressed concern, Bradley told her, “All I need is one top-five [win], and I’ll be right back where I was.” But it was not meant to be. “The more I tried, the worse it got,” she says of those dark days. Finally, she called a doctor friend who gave her a blood test. Diagnosis: Grave’s disease.

Treatment for the thyroid disorder sidelined Bradley for three months (she continues to take daily medication related to the issue), and she eventually returned to top form. In 1992 she was inducted into the LPGA Hall of Fame with 31 wins on the tour, among them six major championships.

Sports psychologist Bob Rotella wrote in his 1996 book, Golf Is a Game of Confidence, that Bradley was the most mentally tough athlete he knew. FIU golf coach Joe Vogel believes that.

“Pat was not the longest hitter on tour, not the most physical person on tour, but it was really her competitiveness,” says Vogel, who believes Bradley’s growing up as the only girl with five brothers instilled in her a certain drive. “I mean, if it was her and a lion on the line, I’d be picking her.”

These days Bradley and Vogel belong to a mutual admiration society. She lauds the athletic talents and near-perfect grade point averages of the team he has recruited. He praises her exceptional achievement as a true pioneer and appreciates her continued support of FIU.

When FIU heads every March to play in Arizona, Bradley comes out to the course to watch and later meets the team for dinner. In 1988 she started a scholarship endowment at FIU and has since made additional financial contributions, a number of which have made possible a practice facility at MMC.

In 2020 FIU will host the 43rd annual Pat Bradley Invitational, a nod to FIU’s greatest woman athlete.

Retired since 1995, the lady has maintained her game with charity and corporate tournaments. She also occasionally hits the links with nephew Keegan Bradley, a professional on the PGA circuit.

When the younger Bradley asked the older, now 68, how she manages to stay so upbeat, she gave him the advice that has sustained her since she consciously chose to pursue the game of golf at age 11: “You’ve got to believe in yourself.”

Thankfully, so did a very young FIU.