Saturday, January 12, 2013 3:08 pm
The man who never quit
By DOUG FERGUSONAP Golf Writer
Bryant is near the end of his PGA Tour career, and he's leaving on his terms.
After going nearly three years without playing a tournament, he returned last summer and made the cut at the St. Jude Classic. Bryant is on a major medical extension and has only three tournaments this year to try to regain full status, but that was never the intention. He turned 50 last November and after playing next week in the Humana Challenge, he's going off to the Champions Tour.
But he's still playing, a minor miracle in itself.
To look only at the numbers, Bryant was nothing more than a journeyman. He didn't get out on tour until he was 28. He didn't win until he was 41. He won three times and finished in the top 50 on the money list only twice. He's not the kind of player who moves the needle. But his character is of the highest quality, and his perseverance was remarkable in the face of so many injuries.
Bryant had rotator cuff surgery in 1992, which led to five trips to Q-school and more time on the mini-tours than he cares to remember. He had surgery on both elbows, and the son of a preacher must have wondered at some point if God were telling him to find another line of work.
He finally won at the Texas Open, which Bryant considers his biggest win because it was the first. The other two wins, both in 2005, were memorable for who he beat. Bryant won the Memorial by one shot over Fred Couples, with Tiger Woods in third. And at the Tour Championship, he beat Woods by six shots and broke the tournament scoring record that had been held by Phil Mickelson.
To this day, Woods has never finished farther behind as a runner-up.
Bryant was tied for 22nd going into the weekend at the Sony Open, not bad for his first tournament of the year without being able to practice much. He still has to be careful with the wrist. Last year, he could only play 18 holes of practice without hitting any balls after his round before a tournament. Now, he's up to nine holes a day and a bucket of balls on the range.
"I think what's a blessing in disguise is I'm so wimpy that I don't hit it hard enough to hurt it," he said with a laugh.
Sure, he effectively lost the last three years of his PGA Tour career, though maybe it was for the best. Golf is getting more athletic, and it takes someone like Bryant to recognize that after stepping away for three years. When he played the John Deere Classic last summer, he had a practice round with a kid at Illinois named Luke Guthrie.
"I thought, `Man, this dude is good.' And then he went on to finish fifth in the tournament," Bryant said. "But other than that, I haven't had the opportunity to spend time with the young guys and I probably won't. I'll say this, though. It's amazing walking around and seeing the physical status of these young guys. Eighty percent of them are big dudes, man. I was telling this guy on the tee, `Who started recruiting athletes to play on our tour?' Man, this sucks."
And then he chuckled, knowing that for all he went through, Bryant got the last laugh.
Russell Henley said he got chills when he was asked a question about the time he once helped Scott Langley with his swing, perhaps because it was a reminder how different golf is to other sports. This is nothing new, of course. Players often help guys who are struggling, even as they're trying to beat them.
The topic came up because Henley and Langley played together in their rookie debut on the PGA Tour. Walking up the 16th fairway, with the Pacific Ocean behind them and a television tower off to the side, they began chatting about where they were at time last year.
They were at a Hooters Tour event in Florida. Henley had missed the cut, and Langley was a second set of eyes as he tried to figure out what was wrong with his swing. Langley, meanwhile, was telling stories about going through a slump in 2010, and how Henley always came over and offered help.
"I don't know everybody out here on the PGA Tour, but you don't come across a lot of guys who really get it and play the game the way I think it should be played," Henley said. "I think when you get guys who are selfless, that's a really cool thing. I try to be that way. I'm probably not always like that. ... It's really cool, that side of the game, because that would never happen in any other sport. You'd never see Federer help Nadal with his backhand - or I don't think you would.
"That's why I love the game so much," Henley said. "I love the competition, but also love how you can be the guy's best friend."
The PGA Tour asks rookies to fill out a questionnaire with some offbeat questions so fans can know a little more about them than where they went to college and how they reached the tour.
Here's a sampling:
- Derek Ernst says he would be a rock star if he didn't play golf for a living. And as a reminder that we're in the next generation, his dream foursome would include Arnold Palmer, Rory McIlroy and Tim Tebow.
- Paul Haley II played baseball in the sixth grade on the same team as former Cy Young winner Clayton Kershaw and Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford.
- Robert Streb has on his bucket list going to an Oklahoma-Texas game. He went to Kansas State. Then again, he grew up in Oklahoma and used to play hockey with St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford.
- Henrik Norlander is from Sweden and played for Augusta State. His dream foursome would include Pete Sampras, Roger Federer and Johnny Cash.