2005: Bryant breezes, proving he belongs with best

Atlanta

It was Tuesday, two days before the start of his first Tour Championship, and Bart Bryant still was wrestling with voices he could not silence inside his head.

The inner battle? Trying to convince himself that he was on the grounds at East Lake Golf Club because he truly belonged there.

“I’m really proud of it (getting here),” Bryant said, standing next to East Lake’s massive practice green. “In a way, it’s kind of overwhelming. You start going down the list of players who are here: Tiger, Vijay, Retief . . . and all of a sudden, it’s ‘Bart Bryant.’ Man, that’s kind of weird. It even sounds weird to me.

“But I want to get used to that name being up there.”

Golf fans may want to start getting used to it, too. Bryant opened with a course-record, 8-under-par 62 at venerable East Lake, a place once dear to Bobby Jones’ heart, and firmly planted his name atop the leaderboard. The next three days, it never moved.

Less than two weeks shy of his 43rd birthday, Bryant had the week of his life in Atlanta, lapping runner-up Tiger Woods and the game’s best players by six shots. Bryant’s 17-under 263 total shattered Phil Mickelson’s tournament mark by four shots, and his $1.17 million winner’s check pushed Bryant all the way to ninth on the 2005 money list with a career-best $3.24 million.

It sure beats the days when he humbly had to ask his older brother Brad, golf’s beloved Dr. Dirt, if he could front him a couple thousand dollars to enter PGA Tour Q-School. Q-School will be played in Bryant’s backyard just outside Orlando, Fla., this year, and Bryant won’t be anywhere near the place.

With two high-profile victories in 2005 (The Memorial and Tour Championship) – and three in 15 months – Bryant now is exempt on Tour through 2008. For the first time he is eligible for all four majors. For Bryant, the time has come to discover how good he really can be.

“I’m thrilled beyond description,” he said. “To have struggled for as long as I did, and all of a sudden in the last 15 months to win three events . . . this exceeds my expectations.

“It’s a really cool feeling, one I’m going to relish for a long, long time.”

For Bryant, playing better was a simple matter of belief. Brian Mogg, Bryant’s longtime friend and his teacher since 2000, once printed out a set of statistics and put them under Bryant’s nose, asking him what he thought of the player he was being shown on paper.

Bryant studied the numbers. Hmmm. They looked pretty good. He figured it must be a pretty good player Mogg was showing him. It was. Bryant learned the stats he was viewing were his.

“Brian helped me realize maybe I’m a better player than I think I am,” said Bryant, who never finished higher than 124th in money before finishing 80th in 2004. “I certainly was on paper, and it was never coming to fruition on a golf course. He said, ‘You know, a player with this kind of stats, sooner or later maybe that money stat is going to catch up, too.’ I think I just started to believe that was going to happen, and I gained some confidence that maybe I’m a better player than I actually showed.”

There were no doubters at East Lake following rounds of 62-68-66-67. Bryant had a chance to falter on Sunday, making back-to-back bogeys at Nos. 5-6 with Woods and Retief Goosen hovering in his rearview mirror, but steadied himself, making three birdies in four holes starting at the par-5 ninth.

“I’ve always peppered him to start believing in himself,” said Mogg, who used to play against Bryant in the mid-1980s. “When he won in Texas (in 2004), you knew it wasn’t going to be a one-time deal. A lot of guys win and that’s their moment. They kind of cruise back to where they were . . . Bart, he’s elevated himself even further.”

Woods (69) finished second for the third time in six years at the Tour Championship, an event he last won in 1999. With $10,628,024 in earnings, Woods earned his sixth money title, his first since 2002. Only Jack Nicklaus, with eight, has won more.

Woods won six times in 2005, adding two majors to his total, which now stands at 10. He has regained his tremendous length advantage off the tee – at East Lake, he averaged 324.3 yards – and called his year a “toss up” with 1999 for the second-best season of his career, behind only 2000, when he won nine times, including three majors.

“I want to be there on the back nine in every major with a chance to win it,” Woods said. “This year, I was there on all four. That, to me, is exciting.”

Scott Verplank (69) finished third at 9-under 271. Goosen, the defending champion, faded badly, shooting 74 to tie for fourth along with Vijay Singh (67) and Davis Love III (69) at 273.

Nobody would come close to catching Bryant, who was incredibly solid the entire week, finishing first in fairways (45) and greens (58), and seventh in putts per round. On a course where the rough was penal, Bryant hit more fairways (45) than Woods and Goosen combined (43).

In one season, Bryant nearly doubled his previous career earnings ($1.8 million). Hard to believe what can happen once you start to believe you belong.

“I’m very surprised,” Bryant said Sunday evening as it all started to sink in. “I mean, I’m just as surprised as you are.”

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