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Pro Golf's Late Bloomers

For many talented golfers, even former PGA Tour winners, the Champions Tour gives them a shot at the big bucks
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Tom Berenger, July/Aug 2007

For more than two decades the Champions Tour (nee the Senior PGA Tour) has been a rolling annuity for players who reach the magical age of 50. For players like Lee Trevino, Hale Irwin and Tom Kite, World Golf Hall of Fame inductees with major championship pedigrees, the Champions Tour is found money and rekindled fame. In no other sport does nostalgia come with a six-figure check.

While legendary and established PGA Tour players have padded their bank accounts and stroked their egos on the Champions Tour, the 50-and-over circuit has also provided a launching pad for the careers of obscure pros and little-known amateurs who find measures of fame and fortune, at, shall we say, a ripe old age. Who had ever heard of club pro Jim Albus before he won the 1991 Senior Players Championship and became a tour fixture? Who had heard of former career amateur Allen Doyle until he qualified for the Senior Tour and ran off 11 victories? Who had heard of mediocre PGA Tour player Dana Quigley until he Monday-qualified for a Champions Tour event in 1997, won it, and went on to earn more than $13 million?

Turning gray can, if the stars align and the putts drop, mean turning green for players who aren't packing an outstanding PGA Tour résumé and a bundle of endorsements. There always seems to be a group of Champions Tour players who wouldn't jog anyone's memories of professional success. You wouldn't remember them coming up the 18th at Augusta National with a chance to win the Masters, because they never did. They never made the covers of the golf magazines or did rental car commercials or pocketed $100,000 a day for corporate outings. But for the lucky few who make it on the Champions Tour, for those who after all these years have gotten their games together at just the right time, age is definitely a thing of beauty, and bounty.

Ever heard of Brad Bryant? In a little more than two seasons on the Champions Tour, he has won more than $3 million, nearly doubling the amount he won on the PGA Tour. How about Tom Jenkins? He has seven victories and more than $11 million in earnings since joining the tour in 1998. David Edwards? After struggling on the PGA Tour in his 40s, Edwards won a seniors tournament less than four months after turning 50 in April 2006 and pocketed more than $1 million during the season. And John Harris? Who the heck is John Harris? The former well-regarded amateur turned pro to play the Champions Tour in 2002 and finally won his first event last season.

If you had heard of Brad Bryant, it's likely because of Gary McCord. McCord, the CBS golf commentator who was a struggling PGA Tour player himself in the 1970s, gave Bryant the nickname Dr. Dirt for his grinding practice regimen. And golf was very much a grind for Bryant as a PGA Tour player. Season after season he hung on to his spot on the Tour, sometimes having to return to the qualifying school. Through the late '70s, '80s and early '90s, Dr. Dirt tore up more earth without a PGA Tour victory than any player in history. Then, on his 475th attempt, he won the rain-shortened Walt Disney World/Oldsmobile Classic in 1995, setting a record for the number of tournaments played to gain a victory.

And that was it. Because of injuries, a factor throughout his career, Dr. Dirt retired after the 1999 season, trading in his sticks for a bass rod. "I was hurting really bad," says Bryant, sitting in the opulent locker room of the Sonoma Golf Club during the Charles Schwab Cup Championship last October. "I was nothing more than a walking Geritol commercial. My back was bad, my shoulders were bothering me, arthritis. Playing golf was absolutely no fun. I was completely worn down. I wasn't getting anywhere anyway, so it came time to stop playing, to at least let myself heal."

But Dr. Dirt didn't have a whole pile of cash lying around for an extended early retirement. "My financial guy says, 'I can take care of your family, but if you want to hunt, fish and smoke cigars all the time, you are going to have to earn it,'" says Dr. Dirt, who might have gotten his name simply for the non-designer-label golf apparel he prefers and a certain disheveled aspect.

When he was 45, Bryant wasn't really considering playing the Champions Tour. When he was 49, that prospect looked a whole lot better and he earned a spot for the 2005 season through the qualifying school. His golf life began again, at 50. And, like most of his career, it was for the money. "The only reason at all I played golf into the 1990s was for the money," says Bryant. "When I finally won, it was exciting, but maybe not as exciting as you might think. It was a relief, really, and I made the most money I ever did on tour that year, so paying the bills wasn't so tough. You come out on tour to make money and maybe find a little glory. For me, there wasn't any glory. I just needed to make some money."

Boy did he ever, after he turned 50. He earned more than $700,000 his rookie season, then won twice and took in nearly $1.7 million in 2006. Dr. Dirt had finally struck Pay Dirt. That allows him to think about retirement again, of long days bass fishing near his home in Lakeland, Florida, and smoking a few cigars to keep the bugs away. "I thought I could have four or five good years and then I could quit," says Bryant. "I am right on track with that. In a couple of years I can go away."

Though Bryant's words can sound as if he is completely negative about the game, he evinces a lively personality, an engaging sense of humor and a down-home honesty that's downright beguiling. He wouldn't want you to think he's not enjoying tour life right now, because it's providing him with the means to an end—to a better bass boat, better cigars and even some attractive shirts.

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