LINKS LETTER, 2006

BROTHER, BROTHER

By Jeff Hopper

Let’s see. Places to raise your kids to be professional golfers

Well, they’ve got to be able to play year round, right? That much is easy. Florida, say, or south Texas or Phoenix. Sure, it’s hot in the summer, but they’ll be on the road playing junior tournaments. They can escape the heat.

Of course, you might try San Diego. That’s mild most every day of the year. The sea breeze, the marine layer, the Southern California traffic.

So no place is heaven.

Besides, there’s always Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Say that again?

Alamogordo. You know, 85 miles north of El Paso, 190 miles south of Santa Fe. Hard by US Route 54. So enticingly close to the White Sands Missile Range, where in 1945 the first atomic bomb sent a mushroom cloud rising over unwitting Otero County.

Home to the Cottonwood Arts and Crafts Festival, the annual Gus Macker basketball tournament, the Alamogordo High School Tigers.

And home, believe it or not, to one of only 11 brother combinations to both win on the PGA Tour.

Well, it used to be home. It is where Brad and Bart Bryant honed a game that would lead them to Tour victory, all the while living with that most unwieldy of small-town monikers: preacher’s kids.

When Dub and Imogene Bryant moved their family to Alamogordo in the mid-1960s, the Cold War—with the specter of that A-bomb blast at White Sands and those that followed in Japan—was still alive and well in every American’s mind. Just about any other byway in America would have been more inviting. But Dub Bryant didn’t follow the course of any man. He went where God told him.

A Southern Baptist minister, Dub was used to living on next to nothing. And while Imogene might have tolerated that for herself, she wanted to give her kids something special. She took a job with the Alamogordo Public Schools, where she became secretary to the superintendent.

“We used to joke that she ran the whole school system,” Bart recalls.

Maybe not. But Imogene Bryant, who never has played much herself, added enough to the family budget to allow for the golf games that Dub Bryant used to entertain his sons.

“My dad, being a pastor,” Brad says, “he had free time in the afternoons. A lot of times he was not free at night. So what we did was play golf together after school a lot of times. As I got older, we started playing a lot more.

“And why not? Dub Bryant had one of the best standing games in town. Brad had found his way to a scratch handicap by the time he was in high school. Two other players of similar ability made it quite a team, and by the time Brad left for the University of New Mexico, golf was downright dominant in his mind.

But for Bart, the seed was just being planted.

With eight years separating them, the Bryant brothers never fed off each other’s youthful interest in the game as much as you might imagine. The mutual enjoyment and respect came later. But growing up, they had this in common: they were both acutely aware of the rare nature of their parents.

“Brad and I could not have played golf had it not been for my mom working full time,” Bart explains, “because playing golf as kids is a pretty big financial commitment. She went and did that because she knew her two boys loved to play golf.

“Bart admits that a lot of people brag about their moms. “But I really believe it,” he says.

And then there was Dub, the thoughtful man of God, whose church, Bethel Baptist, held services for roughly 300 of Alamogordo’s 35,000 residents each Sunday. Without question, the weight of growing up under a preacher has crushed any number of young men and women. Expectations are high. Dad’s attentions are often turned toward so many needy others. And how can you really know that every other way of living is worse unless you try it for yourself?

But Dub Bryant never ran over his children, including Brenda, the sister who grew up right between Brad and Bart in age. And Dub’s children never really ran away from him.

“I think part of it was that my dad was just my dad,” Bart says. “If he was out on the golf course, or at the coffee shop, or if he was behind the pulpit, he was the same person. He didn’t become a different person when he got behind the pulpit and talked to the people in church. He was the exact same guy he was at the dinner table at home.”

But if Brad and Bart were excelling on the golf course, Dub was making strides in the church and the community. And Brad noticed. “The church in New Mexico was a relatively small church. Yet my father had 27 people go into full-time Christian work out of that church.”

Golfers often spout statistics—but not like that one. The Bryant boys ooze with pride in their parents.

Look all you want for an explanation for Brad and Bart Bryants’ strange PGA Tour careers, but the humble, steady commitment of their parents is likely your best answer.

After ditching the University of New Mexico three years into his studies, Brad qualified for the PGA Tour in 1976. In no time he caught the attention of his fellow professionals. Their lifestyle was country club. His was more plain ol’ country. Brad was making his way from tournament to tournament in an old pickup and a fifth wheel—”before it was fashionable,” he says.

It was Gary McCord who first tagged Brad with the nickname that has stuck to this day. Only at first, the name wasn’t so sophisticated.

“McCord thought I looked like a character from a gasoline commercial, Mr. Dirt,” Brad says, a bit reluctant to be telling this story for the bazillionth time. “So he started calling me Mr. Dirt. After a while it progressed and it was Bobby Walzel who changed it to Dr. Dirt.

“Does he like the name?

“The guys don’t give you a nickname unless they expect you to stick around for a long time, and that’s basically what happened.

“Sure enough. But as the fans were enjoying Brad Bryant as the amiable, down-to-earth Dr. Dirt, Brad was also building another reputation, one his colleagues didn’t envy.

Brad Bryant was a perpetual runner-up. He couldn’t win.

In 1982 and 1983, he finished second at the Tournament Players Championship, the Quad Cities Open, and the Byron Nelson Classic. Two years later his game was in shambles. He missed 14 cuts in the 16 tournaments he played in 1985. Then injuries riddled his efforts, and it wasn’t until the early ’90s that he found a competitive place on Tour again.

Competitive, but still not winning.

By the time he arrived home in Orlando in the fall of 1995 to play the Walt Disney World Classic, Brad had logged 474 tournaments on the PGA Tour. Seven times he had finished second (eight, if you count 1988’s Tour Qualifying Tournament); three more times he had finished third.

Then stars rained down on Brad Bryant in the Magic Kingdom. In his 20th year as a professional, he carried home the trophy. Rain itself fell too that week, and in a shortened 54-hole event, Brad posted 67-63-68 to win. His patience, his diligence, his stubbornness had paid off.In the next four years, he played only about 60 more events, then he called it quits in 1999. His kids were growing older and he wanted to be home with them. His body was worn out and his only interest in playing seemed to be for money.

But Brad Bryant would be back. After all, he loved the game. And there was this little enticement called the Champions Tour that awaited Brad when he turned 50 late in 2004.

At this point, we could take the fast track and say, Ditto, Bart, for the parallels between the brothers’ careers was, for a long time, far closer than the parallels in their lives.

“It’s hard for me to talk about how it was growing up in the Bryant household with Brad because we were so far apart in age,” Bart says. “I mean I grew up playing in high school with him being on the PGA Tour, going to watch him, even watching on TV.

“Their relationship would have to be built later, when Bart moved to Florida after finishing his own collegiate career at New Mexico State University. Bart and his young wife Cathy moved in with Brad, looking for a chance to “get on our feet, start playing the mini-tours, hopefully break into the golf-playing business.

“This was in 1986-87, when surgery kept Brad off tour almost entirely. “That’s when we got to know each other, to be honest with you,” Bart explains. “We kind of became brothers.

“Eventually, Bart qualified for the PGA Tour himself, beginning his first full season in 1991. He missed more cuts than he made, but had two top 10s and got a taste of what had been feeding Brad.

In the years to come, he also got a taste of what had been paining his brother. Bart Bryant could not win either. And a lot of it had to do with injuries. Between 1991 and 2004, he played just six full seasons on the PGA Tour. Heading to San Antonio, Texas, in September for the Valero Texas Open, his best finish in 192 career starts was a seventh place showing at the 1991 Honda Classic. He’d done no better on the Nationwide Tour.

The Texas Open is one of the PGA Tour’s forgotten events. It runs opposite the cups, and in 2004, it was set against the Ryder Cup won by Europe in demoralizing fashion at Oakland Hills. While the game’s pundits were wondering what had happened to the leading Americans, Bart Bryant shook the golf world in his own little way at La Cantera. His 60 in the third round set him up for victory.

The question was whether he could seize it.

“I think previous to that I’d always kind of sabotaged my game a little bit,” Bart reflects now. “Every time I’d get in contention, I didn’t feel I deserved to be there or I didn’t feel like I could handle the pressure, so I kind of always backed off.

“Bart credits his swing coach, Brian Mogg, with changing his thinking.”You know how brutal the media can be on guys when they get there, they have a chance to win, they lead a tournament and they mess it up. They kind of get labeled a choker or whatever. I think there was always a little fear there of putting my neck on the chopping block so in a way I threw caution to the wind. I said, ‘You know, I’m too old for all this to matter anymore.’ Brian convinced me I was good enough to play.”

When he followed his plan by “taking it deep” on Saturday with PGA Tour season-low 60, he also committed himself to sticking with his plan on Sunday.

“I had a few sleepless moments that night. But going out, I really surprised myself at how much peace I had that day when I was playing, how patient I was, how I was able to be confident in my ability and the talent I had. I really just focused on doing the things that had gotten me there all week.

“The win wasn’t just terrific for Bart. Brad, who was also playing in Texas that week, enjoyed it at least as much, calling Bart’s win his own biggest thrill in golf. He didn’t have to sweat out this win, as he had done with his own.

But this is also where the story turns a bit, for in the 14 months that followed San Antonio, including the whole of the 2005 season, Bart Bryant moved into position as one of the best players on the PGA Tour—remarkably, at age 42. In the spring, at Jack Nicklaus’ Muirfield Village course in Ohio, Bart defeated one of the season’s strongest fields at the Memorial Tournament. He shot four rounds in the 60s and beat Fred Couples by a shot.

And there was another opponent fans noticed Bart had defeated. Some guy named Woods. The three-time winner of the event finished four shots back.

Woods and Singh and Goosen and nearly all the rest were there again at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta when the season closed at the Tour Championship. But the winner was the resurgent Bart Bryant, who handled one of the Tour’s toughest courses as though he’d played there all his life.

Two huge wins, two huge paychecks, and Bart found himself in the top ten on the season’s money list with more than $3 million in earnings. What a season—and what did Bart’s friends want to talk about? Tiger Woods.

“You beat Tiger and it’s a big deal,” Bart muses. “It’s funny because I’m getting letters from people and phone calls and people talk to my mom and dad or to my wife or to my kids, and it’s not really, ‘Congratulations on winning the Tour Championship!’ It’s, ‘Congratulations, you beat Tiger!’ ”

In his own mind, however, Bart finds his victories equally satisfying. After all, the Texas Open was his first one. “What a relief to win and to know I wasn’t going to Tour school and to kind of have that monkey off my back,” he says. “The other two wins meant just as much if not more, but it was just a different animal, you know what I’m saying?”

The fall of 2004 was not a delight for Bart alone. Yes, Brad shared Bart’s joy in that win at La Cantera, but he had work of his own to do. In mid-December, Brad would turn 50, making him eligible for the Champions Tour. First, however, he would have to get through perhaps the toughest of all qualifying tournaments—92 players for seven exempt cards.

Brad showed he was up to the test. He finished third and was headed back out on tour, refreshed and prepared. Four weeks in, at the SBC Classic in California, Brad picked up his first top 10. In May, two more.

But an old bugaboo cropped up—injury. Brad nursed a torn ligament in his ankle through the spring.

Then late in the year, in Houston at the Administaff Small Business Classic, that other haunting knack arose. Brad led the tournament going into Sunday. He made seven birdies that day, but a triple bogey at the tenth and a double at the sixteenth undid him. He settled for fourth, three shots back of Mark McNulty.

Patience is a family trait. Dub Bryant often mulls a question in silence for several seconds before beginning to answer. His sons have lingered over golf, waiting for it to give them all they have gained in the later stages of their careers.

And patience, you surely know, is a virtue. There is no doubt that the Bryant boys were raised in the shadow of virtue.

“My mom is by far the most godly woman I’ve ever been around,” Brad effuses. “I don’t say that just because she’s my mom. There are lots of people that would tell you that.”

With the rich example of their father and mother, the Bryants were given a strong foundation of support and guidance. Not that they always lived trouble-free lives, cocksure in their faith.

“I think at certain periods of my life,” Bart says, “it’s not that I drifted really far away from Christ, but I really struggled with being grateful to God, maybe even having bitterness because of some of my injuries or not succeeding and seeing other people succeeding and wondering why. You know, it’s not a good feeling. God wants us to live a life of gratitude at all times.”

Gratitude. Perhaps more than anyplace else, such a characteristic is born in a place like Alamogordo. Unheralded. Quiet. Humble. The town rubbed off on two of its favorite sons. And they have spent their professional lives trying to stay as they were raised.

They do it with a blend of three key ingredients.

First is family. Bart and Brad still spend many hours with their parents, Dub and Imogene. But they greatly enjoy their wives and children as well. Brad has two sons, Bart two daughters. In fact, Bart credits his daughters Kristen and Michelle with feeding his faith in God: “I need to rely on God because I can’t do this parenting thing on my own. Without God, I’d mess it up pretty bad, so I’ve got to trust Him for that.”

Then there are friends. Bart goes so far as to list them on the PGA Tour Web site as one of his chief interests. “People kind of laugh at that,” he says, “but that’s what I love, whether it’s going with my friends and playing golf with them or calling them up and going to lunch with them or the movies or just sitting in the garage and working on golf clubs—anything. The time that I have at home I’d much rather be doing that than some kind of hobby, out fishing or something.”

And finally, there is that faith, the one that keeps it all in perspective.”Understanding first of all that we’re forgiven—that’s huge,” Brad says. “Golf is not nearly as important as everything else in our lives. There are times when I am not walking as closely with God as I should. It’s easy then to get upset, angry, and lose perspective. But when my walk with Him is really good, it seems I’m a lot more patient and other things like that that can help me be a better player.

“But ultimately you hope that no matter what you’re doing, you’re in the center of God’s will and that is reflected in all aspects of your life. I don’t believe that we should compartmentalize our lives like we’ve seen some leaders do in recent years. One part of your life can’t be severed from another part of your life. God loves all of our lives to serve Him and glorify Him.”

It’s a long way from Alamogordo to most places you’ve ever read about or visited. But if you’re looking for the road to the PGA Tour, it just might go through the town at 3,500 feet in the southern mountains of New Mexico. And if you’re looking for the road to a rich life, you could do much worse than having followed Brad or Bart Bryant out of town to where they are now.

Apparently no one ever told the Bryants it would be easy. It didn’t have to be. They were given what they needed to make it anyway.

COPYRIGHT 2006 LINKS PLAYERS INTERNATIONAL

  • Bart Bryant

    3 PGA Tour Wins: 2004 Valero Texas Open, 2005 Memorial Tournament, 2005 The Tour Championship presented by Coca-Cola