Early birdies get Bryant the Boeing Classic lead

SNOQUALMIE — Three years ago, Bart Bryant was wondering if he would ever play competitive golf again.

In recent weeks he’s been playing as well as ever.

Bryant, who underwent bone fusion surgeries on his left wrist in 2010 and again in 2011, birdied five of the first six holes on Friday and went on to shoot a 6-under-par 66 for the first-round lead of the Boeing Classic at TPC Snoqualmie Ridge.

The 51-year-old Bryant, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour (all his victories came in 2004 and 2005), is trying to repeat last week’s first-place finish at the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open in Endicott, N.Y. It was his first win on the 50-and-over Champions Tour.

Five early birdies “was a great way to get it started,” Bryant said. It was, he added, “kind of a dream start.”

Heading into today’s second of three rounds, Bryant has a one-shot lead over Duffy Waldorf and Bobby Clampett, both at 5-under 67. Bernhard Langer, the 2010 tournament champ, is one of three players at 4-under 68, while Seattle native and fan favorite Fred Couples is one of three players at 3-under 69.

Under mostly overcast skies, Bryant took the early lead Friday and never let it go. He finished his round with eight birdies and two bogeys.

“Overall it was a great day,” he said. “Sixty-six, I would’ve taken that at the beginning of the day. In fact, I’d take it every day for the rest of my life. It’s a great first round and it feels really good to get off to a good start.”

Bryant, a two-time All-American at New Mexico State University in the early 1980s, was 41 when he won for the first time on the PGA Tour. His last PGA Tour win was the 2005 Tour Championship and it was a six-stroke margin over Tiger Woods, the largest runner-up deficit of Woods’ pro career.

But Bryant’s game began to slip after that due to deterioration in his left wrist. There was no single injury, he said, just “years and years of beating it up. I lost all the cartilage in there, and the bones were turning and rubbing.”

Realizing his playing career might be over, he agreed to have the wrist bones fused “to create one big bone.” Doctors repeated the operation the next year, and Bryant ended up missing three full years of competitive golf.

He returned in 2012 and gradually began seeing improvement in his game. But the big breakthrough came this month, beginning with a tie for fourth at the 3M Championship with a 14-under 202, followed by a win in New York two weeks later with a 16-under 200 (including a 10-under 62 in the second round).

“There was a time when I didn’t believe it was going to happen,” he said. “It was tough. I did a little bit of grieving.”

“Being out here playing is particularly special,” he added. “But to be able to win last week and to shoot some good scores this year is pretty cool. I didn’t expect it quite this soon, if ever.”

Couples, meanwhile, is just three strokes back, despite a disappointing bogey on No. 17 and a scrambling par on the par-5 18th hole. All this despite donning a Seattle Seahawks cap on the 17th tee, supposedly for good luck down the stretch.

“Oh, well. I got a $20 hat out of the deal,” he joked.

Couples was at least grateful to finish his round. A year ago he dropped out after injuring his back with his opening tee shot.

“That was definitely on my mind on the (driving) range,” he admitted. “I was putting myself through stress, and a lot of times that’s what does it. I tighten up because I get a little stressful. So I didn’t feel good.”

It helped that Couples birdied the first hole, and 17 holes later he said, “I feel great, I really do. … Now I just need to make more birdies.”

Tap-ins

Defending champion Jay Don Blake opened with an even-par 72 and is tied for 34th. … Tournament officials announced a crowd of 25,000, matching the first-day record crowd of a year ago. … Rick Fehr, another Seattle native, shot a 5-over 72 and is tied for 77th. … 2011 champ Mark Calcavecchia withdrew after 12 holes with a back injury. … Langer had a consecutive string of holes without a bogey end at 50 when he bogeyed No. 11. … Today’s starting times begin at 10 a.m., with the leaders teeing off at noon.

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