ENDICOTT, N.Y. — It has been 33 years since the Champions Tour was born, and its newest champion is somebody special: 50-year-old rookie Bart Bryant is the tour’s 1,000th winner.
Bryant, who shot a tournament record-tying 10-under 62 in the second round to build a four-shot lead, closed with a 72 on Sunday and finished at 16-under 200 to beat Russ Cochran (67) and Corey Pavin (69) by one shot.
“It was a difficult day for me. I just never really felt settled,” Bryant said, his family standing by his side. “I really didn’t play great. Somehow, I managed to get it in. I think we all feel very blessed at the moment to pull this one out.”
It was a memorable moment for Bryant and the senior tour, which began in 1980 at the Atlantic City Country Club in Atlantic City, N.J. Don January, who won that first tournament, was on hand to congratulate Bryant and hand him the trophy.
“We thought there might be a market for us old guys,” the 83-year-old January said. “We was just interested in getting enough to make a living. There were a bunch of us guys in our late 40s and early 50s still trying to play the (PGA) tour and wasn’t being very successful at it. Yet we felt like we could still play a little bit.”
The inaugural year consisted of four events. The purse at the Atlantic City Senior International was $125,000 and the total prize money for the season was $475,000. January took home $20,000. Bryant, whose best previous finish this season was a tie for fourth at the 3M Championship in his last start two weeks ago, pocketed $270,000 of the $1.8 million purse.
“Truthfully, when we first started we had no idea how long it was going to last, or whether it would even be successful,” January said. “We thought we had a pretty good product, but we weren’t sure of anything. I never thought in that realm of 1,000 tournaments. My god, that’s forever. It’s come a long way. Hopefully, it will get better.”
For, Bryant, who won in just his 14th start on the circuit, it was his first victory since winning the 2005 Tour Championship, ending a drought of 7 years, 9 months, 11 days. He also won the 2005 Memorial and the 2004 Valero Texas Open on the PGA Tour.
That was before two surgeries on his left wrist relegated him to spectator status for nearly three years and left him wondering if he’d ever play again, let alone win.
“I dreamed about it. I envisioned it. I don’t know if I believed it would happen, especially after I did the first surgery and it failed,” Bryant said. “I don’t know if I really bought into the belief that it could actually happen this quick.”
Bryant, who held the largest lead entering the final round of this tournament since its inception in 2007, vowed not to play conservatively because the narrow, tree-lined En-Joie Golf Club course was yielding lots of birdies under near-ideal conditions.
Luckily for him, nobody made a winning surge on a day where pin placements made going real low somewhat more difficult.
“I just made a lot of pars out there,” Bryant said. “For some reason, I just wasn’t going today with the putter. I don’t know if I got a little nervous. I really struggled. Just lucky that nobody got real hot.”
The key to going low at En-Joie is to keep the ball in the fairway, and nobody did it better than Bryant over the first two rounds. He was a model of consistency, hitting 10 of 14 fairways each day and reaching all but two greens in regulation. Small wonder he was the only player in the field to avoid making a bogey the first two days.
That consistency vanished with Bryant’s first shot Sunday as he hooked his drive at No. 1 into the left rough. He hit just 4 of 7 fairways and reached only five greens in regulation on the front nine. His errant shots finally caught up to him at the par-3 fourth hole when he overshot the green, pitched back past the hole and over a ridge well past the pin and made bogey.
Pavin, alone in second at the start of the day, was unable to make putts that were there for the taking on the front and parred every hole. Four birdies and one bogey on the back side weren’t enough, his putt for birdie at the closing hole missing by inches.
“I just couldn’t get anything going,” Pavin said. “Hats off to Bart. He made a lot of short putts that he needed to make, which are very hard to make under pressure.”
Cochran, six shots behind after two rounds, reached 13 under with three birdies in his first seven holes to move into second. He reached 16 under with three more birdies on the back, but bogeyed the closing hole and was left wondering what might have been after Bryant did the same.
Bryant finally broke through with birdies at Nos. 8 and 9. He spun his third shot at the par-5 eighth hole to within 2 feet, eliciting a nice cheer from the gallery, and calmly sank a 10-foot putt at No. 9 to go 17 under.
“That calmed me down a little bit and gave me a tad of breathing room,” Bryant said. “All I really could do was stay patient. I just didn’t have much of a game. I don’t know if it was the nerves or what. I felt like that was my only chance, to stay patient and not force the issue and hopefully do something at the end to separate myself.”
He parred the next eight holes before bogeying 18, missing a terrific opportunity after driving to 7 feet at No. 17.
“I probably have to get a lot stronger mentally,” Bryant said. “Hopefully, this will propel me.”