-- There were many times Bart Bryant admitted he lay in bed at night wondering if it was time to get a real job, times when he asked himself if the pain of surgeries and rugged rehabs on his shoulder and both elbows was worth it, times when "there was always a seed in my mind that it wouldn't happen."

Even after he won the Texas Open last fall at age 41, the same week the best players in the world were competing in the Ryder Cup, Bryant felt as if somehow he needed to validate that first career victory. When Jack Nicklaus shook his hand coming off the 18th green early this evening at the Memorial, Bryant said the moment was "beyond comprehension" for him.

A few minutes later, when Fred Couples's impossible chip shot from behind the 18th green failed to fall for a possible tying birdie, Bryant was able to celebrate the biggest victory of his life, on a difficult Nicklaus-designed Muirfield Village golf course against one of the strongest fields of the season other than a major championship.

"For me, this year was kind of about validation, for myself," Bryant said. "I don't think anybody else really cared one way or another, but I needed to show myself that I belonged in the winner's circle and I could compete with Tiger Woods and Vijay Singh if I'm on top of my game."

Bryant prevailed in the end with his fourth straight round in the 60s, a 68 for a 16-under 272 to beat gallery darling Couples, who was trying to win for the first time since the 2003 season and the 16th time in his career.

Bryant withstood 90-degree heat and a scorching run by Couples, who birdied four of the first six holes on the back side to open a one-shot lead over Bryant.

But Couples faltered with a bogey out of a greenside bunker at the 16th about the same time Bryant knocked in his own four-footer for birdie after a brilliant 7-iron approach to the 478-yard 17th, a two-shot swing that put Bryant back in the lead to stay.

And then it really got interesting. Bryant made an improbable par from a water hazard on the 72nd hole, sinking a treacherous downhill 14-foot putt on 18th green for what became a one-shot victory.

Bryant's 5-wood off the tee at the 18th hole took a huge bounce in the fairway, then went down a stream bank on the left side. His ball was dry, inches from the water, but he elected to take a drop and a penalty stroke for an unplayable lie rather than risk a shot that at best would have gained 50 or 60 yards down the fairway. From 178 yards, he hit a third-shot 6-iron within 14 feet of the flag.

"I knew it was a big putt," he said. "I knew it was going to turn a little right to left, that it was going to be extremely fast. I mean I was just trying to lag it down there and luckily it had the right line. I think I would have had a four-footer coming back if it hadn't hit the hole."

Couples likely will always remember a nine-foot putt for eagle that barely grazed the hole at the 503-yard 15th hole. He also missed an 18-footer at the 16th for a bogey, then a tough 14-footer for birdie at the 17th after his own magnificent second shot into the green from a seemingly impossible stance.

Knowing he had to birdie the final hole to force a playoff with Bryant, Couples misjudged the wind and hit his second-shot 6-iron over the green, in deep grass 20 yards from the flag. His chip never came close, rolling 35 feet past the hole, though to his credit, he managed to make that par putt for a closing 69 -- 273.

"On 18, if anything, I felt a little bit pressured trying to hit a different kind of shot," said Couples, runner-up here last year to Ernie Els. "I figured if I hit it to the right, there's no way you can make that putt. I tried to hold it up against the wind, and instead I got it riding with the wind. I would have loved to have had a birdie putt, but I didn't."

Lots of players were also bemoaning missed opportunities, including Tiger Woods, who managed to shoot 68 but never got closer than two shots off the lead on the back nine and ended in a three-way tie for third place with Jeff Sluman (72) and Bo Van Pelt (68). Woods essentially ended his chances when he double bogeyed the 182-yard eighth hole from behind the green, hitting two poor chips, then missing a five-footer to save a bogey.

Woods had to finish in solo third place or better in order to overtake Singh for the No. 1 spot in the world rankings. Singh missed the cut this week, but can pad his lead with a decent finish this week in the Booz Allen Classic at Congressional. Woods will take the week off from the tour in order to prepare for the U.S. Open at Pinehurst June 13-19.

Bryant's victory also spared him from having to qualify for the Open on Tuesday. He had been planning to play in a Tampa qualifier and had an early morning flight scheduled to leave here Monday morning.

"I guess I can change my flight and sleep in," he said, smiling. "It's like a $100 change fee, though."

With a winner's check for $990,000, a player who has never been higher on the money list than 80th place will be able to afford it. Bryant is mostly known as the younger brother of Brad, now playing on the senior Champions Tour. Bart had to go back to Qualifying School six times since 1990 to earn back his playing card on the PGA Tour.

One of four players sharing the 54-hole lead, Bryant also admitted he didn't sleep much Saturday night.

"I thought I might just throw my guts up, let them leak in the river on the 17th hole," he said. "Laying in my bed last night, it was just a total mystery to me. Would I go out and be confident, trust my swing, trust my putting stroke, or would I just get so nervous, I couldn't play? I didn't know."

He does now.

Bart Bryant exults after saving par on the 18th hole for a 4-under 68, his fourth consecutive round in the 60s.