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The Golden Golfers

PGA professionals over 40 were once judged over the hill, but last year eight different players won 13 times on the tour
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Kurt Russell, May/June 2006

(continued from page 1)

His victory in the Memorial came after making a 15-foot putt to save par on the 72nd hole. "You make a putt to win on the last hole, walk off the green, and there's Jack Nicklaus standing there waiting to shake your hand. I mean, that's like golfer utopia," says Bryant.

He had been far from utopia throughout his career. Surgeries on both elbows and a rotator cuff didn't help him any. Without success on the Tour, it was difficult to maintain the confidence and focus needed to make cuts and earn enough cash to stay exempt for the next year. He was constantly going back to the Tour's Qualifying School, playing mini-tour events to support his family, and generally despairing of a golf life that didn't seem marked for greatness.

But with the backing of his wife, Cathy, and brother Brad, a former PGA Tour player himself, Bart Bryant persevered. All the adversity he had endured had prepared him to win, even if he didn't know it.

"I had to make a living for a long time by winning mini-tour events, and I mean you got to win a lot of them to make a living," says Bryant. "I had been to the Q school so many times, faced the pressure of having to make a score the last day to get my card. You can't face more pressure than having to make a score at the Q school. Then I was finally healthy in 2004, put it together at Texas, had the lead going into the final round and closed the deal. So I think playing in 2005, winning those tournaments—I mean it sure wasn't easy, but I wasn't getting in my own way. I had the confidence to play my game and think it was good enough, and it was." The reward was $3.25 million for the year and exemptions into all the major tournaments in 2006.

"You know, sometimes it can be brutal out here," says Bryant. "If you have a chance to win, [and] you don't come through, you can be labeled a choker. I think there comes a point as you get a little older and a little more mature where you throw that out the window and say, 'I'm too old to worry about that anymore. It's time to put it on the line.'"

Wes Short Jr. decided to put it on the line in 1997, and he was starting from a considerably lower rung on the golf ladder than Bryant. Short was a lunch-pail pro in Austin, Texas, and for three years had been working at the Ben White Golf Center driving range, about as far removed from the PGA Tour as you can be while still being a professional player. He committed fully to playing professional golf in 1997, kicking around various small events in Texas, eventually graduating to mini-tours. He borrowed $5,000 from a bank, had a $20,000 limit on a credit card, and found a sponsor. He was 34 years old, downright elderly when it comes to launching a drive for the PGA Tour.

"I just didn't want to look back when I was 50 and regret not at least trying to play the PGA Tour," says Short. "[PGA Tour player] J.L. Lewis is a friend of mine and he encouraged me to give it a shot. I didn't really have anything to lose except some money, and I had a whole bunch to gain if I could make it."

So off he went to the mini-tours, playing well enough to make a little money and eventually qualifying for the Nationwide Tour. "The players were getting better, the courses were getting better and I was getting better," says Short. "I wasn't winning, but I was playing good enough to have some hope. If you have hope, you keep going."

In 2003, he made it through the PGA Tour Qualifying School, but before the 2004 season started he popped a disk in his lower back moving a box in his house. He could play only 12 events in 2004 and was forced back to the Q school, where he earned his card for the 2005 season. All along, his back remained tender and he nursed it with rehab work. "From what people were telling me, there was no way I was going to have surgery unless I couldn't stand up," says Short. "It gradually got better, but I was still hanging back when I swung. My coach, Chris DeKeratry, said, 'You got to trust it not to hurt. You're just hanging on. If you get hurt, you get hurt.'"

Short missed many cuts early in the season, then finished fourth in the John Deere Classic in July after holding the lead on Sunday. That tournament told him something—he could play with these guys. Then, in October, came the Michelin Championship at Las Vegas where a lot of players like Short were trying to keep their cards. As an alternate, Short needed the withdrawal of Arron Oberholser to get into the tournament.

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