McCabe: 3 years later, Bryant back on Tour

Bart Bryant will tee it up for the first time since a wrist injury sent him to the disabled list in 2009.

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Given that it’s U.S. Open sectional qualifying time, you will read and hear plenty about golfers who hurdled travel snags, withstood weather delays, played 36 holes in a day, and pretty much persevered to take on the challenge of competitive golf.

For the moment, brush them all aside and raise a toast to a more heartfelt story of determination. Welcome back, Bart Bryant.

Go ahead, take a moment. Refresh your memory. Refer to your PGA Tour media guide, if you must. That’s all the proof you need that it’s been a while since Bryant last teed it up in a PGA Tour tournament. To put things in perspective, here’s how long ago it was: When Bryant last played, Tiger Woods was in dominating form, still with Elin and Hank Haney, and hadn’t changed the course of golf history by hitting a hydrant.

It was the John Deere Classic in July of 2009 when Bryant labored to a closing 75 to finish T-48. He signed his card, then threw in the towel. The pain in his left wrist, which had first arrived in late 2008, was insufferable, and he figured enough was enough. His 2009 season had been rough – just one top 10 in 17 starts – and Bryant figured rest was in order.

He just didn’t think it would be this much rest.

“I mean, it was great to be home and all that, but after a while I’m sure my wife (Cathy) was sick of me,” Bryant said, laughing. “You like to be home, sure, but three years? That’s a whole different ball of wax.”

Indeed, when Bryant tees it up Thursday in the FedEx St. Jude Classic at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tenn., it will be nearly three years since that John Deere Classic. In between, there have been two surgeries on the left wrist and plenty of nights spent thinking he might not ever get back in the lineup.

“Just been laying low, biding my time,” Bryant said. “It just took a long time to heal.”

An MRI in 2009 determined that Bryant had lost just about all cartilage in his left wrist. Two procedures were attempted, both to no avail, so finally Bryant said yes to bone fusion with Dr. Andrew Weiland, who also operated on wrist injuries to Jim Furyk, Trevor Immelman and Luke Donald.

Bryant was prepared for a rehab period of about a year, but by late 2010 it still wasn’t right. “Part of the fusion took, part didn’t,” Bryant said. “Basically, a year later we did the surgery again.”

That pretty much knocked 2011 out of the equation, much to Bryant’s chagrin.

“It was weird. I had had other injuries and surgeries through the years and been out of action, but I always made it through those fine,” Bryant said.

But this one? It was relentless, and its timing couldn’t have been worse. Bryant, after all, had developed into one of the feel-good stories on the PGA Tour. In September of 2004, on the same weekend that the U.S. Ryder Cup team was getting embarrassed at Oakland Hills, Bryant won in his 187th start on the PGA Tour, shooting 19-under 261 at the Valero Texas Open. At 41, he was the oldest first-time winner in nine years.

The next year, he not only won twice but did so with gusto, taking Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament and the season-ending Tour Championship. It was a $3,248,136 cash flow that year, placing Bryant ninth on the money list, and he followed that up with solid seasons in 2006 ($1.3 million), 2007 ($1.1 million), and 2008 ($1.7 million). All told, Bryant piled up $7,452,294 from 2005 through '08. For a guy who had sat outside the top 125 and been forced to Q-School on a handful of occasions years earlier, it was a remarkable reward for perseverance.

“It was the best time of my career,” Bryant said.

He let that thought hang, but if you think it was drenched in bitterness, you don’t know Bryant. The son of a Baptist pastor, Bryant grew up in very humble means – which is the only way you can grow up in a place called Alamogordo, N.M. Like his brother Brad, who is eight years older and a member of the Champions Tour, Bart Bryant made too many trips to the DL and ate too much minitour dust early in his career not to fully appreciate the riches when they finally flowed.

Doesn’t matter that the tap got shut off abruptly, either. He appreciates that it was on and that he’s getting another chance.

“I’m very fortunate and feel very blessed,” Bryant said. “It’s been so neat to see everyone again, guys who’ve been so gracious to me out here. There are a lot of new faces, but it’s been fun to catch up and see some of the officials. It’s been a bit of a homecoming.”

If his one rehab start – the Nationwide Tour’s Stadion Classic at UGA in Athens, Ga., a few weeks ago – is any indication, Bryant suspects his return from a near-three-year layoff won’t be easy. Though he made the cut, “on Saturday and Sunday it was pretty dicey; the pain was very intense.”

But Bryant, who will turn 50 on Nov. 18, has had a few more weeks to rest and he’s committed to a slow, cautious practice routine. He played nine Monday at TPC Southwind, nine more Tuesday, then said he’d spend Wednesday “just putting.” It’s not how he wants it (“I love to practice, and my game needs it.”) but it’s how things are.

“At this point, I have no idea what to expect," Bryant said. "I have to figure out my learning curve, what I can or can’t do. I started hitting short shots around Christmas and I wasn’t expecting it to progress this well. But it improved quickly, and I’m itching so much to play.”

And if it doesn’t go well?

“Maybe I’ll take a couple more months off,” he said.

He did not say that with any enthusiasm, however.

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