2005: Big stars bow to Bryant
To many, Bart Bryant has been something of an unknown soldier on the PGA Tour, just another nondescript name on the bag who has cut a figure barely noticeable down the end of the range. He had played nearly 200 Tour events before this season, but to this point, he’d been known mostly as Bradley Bryant’s far less vocal brother, a one-time mini-tour force and semi-regular at Q-School each year whose rotator cuff and two elbow surgeries outnumbered his victories on Tour (one).
At 42, and after 20 years plying his trade, he’s had nights when he lay awake wondering if he there wasn’t a better way to support his wife and two daughters. When Bryant finally won the Valero Texas Open last autumn, barely anyone noticed. The victory arrived on a September day when the eyes of the golf universe were centered on Oakland Hills, as Europe finished a commanding victory over an embarrassed U.S. squad at the Ryder Cup.
For Bryant, his validation as a top player arrived June 5 at the Memorial. All the big stars were out at Jack’s Place. When Bryant birdied his penultimate hole and somehow salvaged par at Muirfield Village’s 18th hole after his tee shot came to rest inches from a hazard, allowing him to hold off crowd-favorite Fred Couples by one shot, Bryant knew this accomplishment would garner a little more attention.
Proof arrived quickly. Waiting for Bryant off the final green with an extended hand was Jack Nicklaus, the tournament host who was duly impressed with the finish he’d just witnessed.
“To win against a quality field like this . . . to walk off the 18th green and have Mr. Nicklaus waiting to shake your hand and congratulate you is beyond comprehension,” said Bryant, who closed with a 4-under 68.
The tournament seemed to be firmly in Couples’ grasp, especially when he knocked a second-shot 4-iron to 4 feet at the par-5 15th hole, setting up an opportunity to open up a two-shot advantage. But Couples missed the eagle putt and bogeyed the par-3 16th after coming up short in a bunker with a 6-iron. Up ahead, Bryant birdied the 17th hole to lead at 16 under. Before anyone knew it, thousands of fans who’d spent Sunday loudly yelling “Boom Boom” discovered they had only the victor’s initials (B.B.) right.
“You know, Bart has been through a lot, and he’s a great, great player,” said Couples, who was trying to secure his first victory since the 2003 Shell Houston Open and was a Memorial runner-up for the second consecutive year. “I can relate to winning here (he won in 1998). It’ll be one he’ll never forget.”
On a steamy afternoon when the leaderboard was jammed – 11 players were within three shots of the lead when the final group made the turn – Bryant and Couples (69) broke away from the rest. Tiger Woods (68) was slowed by a double bogey on the eighth hole, and battled back to tie for third with Bo Van Pelt (his best career finish) and Jeff Sluman, who was playing on a sponsor exemption. The trio finished three shots back. (Woods would have overtaken Vijay Singh at No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking had he finished third alone.)
Bryant played in the next-to-last group, and the raucous cheers behind him as Couples surged into the lead never rattled him. Bryant stole the lead from Couples at 17 with a 7-iron approach to 5 feet. The real drama then came at 18, when his 3-wood took a hard bounce, bounded left and stopped inches from the water.
Playing it safe, Bryant took a penalty drop and lashed a 6-iron to 15 feet, then holed the par putt. He sat nervously in the scoring trailer waiting to see if his score would stand. It did when Couples’ approach from the 18th fairway sailed over the green into deep rough.
“Bart deserved to win,” said Couples, who missed two putts inside 10 feet over the final four holes. “I can’t really kick myself too hard. There are a lot of shots out there, and there are a lot of things I did to save shots, too. But overall, I just needed one more putt.”
Bryant was a forgotten figure among the four players tied for the lead going into the final round. He didn’t have one-fourth the size of the gallery trailing Couples, and some fans even called him “Brad.” But he was the only player among the top 30 who didn’t make a bogey on the back nine Sunday.
As Couples sent the gallery into a frenzy with a collection of brilliant iron shots and key putts, Bryant matched him.
“There wasn’t anybody who played better golf,” said Nicklaus, who two days earlier finished up his 30th, and possibly final, start at Memorial. “Hole after hole after hole, Bart had a chance to have something happen. You made the putt every time.”
None was bigger than the last one, a slick right-to-left curler that sneaked in the left side.
Bryant finished at 16-under 272 and won $990,000. Better yet, his victory got him out of his Tuesday appointment for a 36-hole U.S. Open qualifier in Tampa, Fla. Bryant earned an exemption by winning twice on the PGA Tour since last year’s Open. It will be his first U.S. Open since 1994, and only his third major.
“This year was kind of about validation for myself,” Bryant said. “I don’t think anybody else really cared one way or the other, but for me, I needed to show myself that I belonged in the winner’s circle, and I could compete with Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh and these guys.”
– Staff and wire reports