When Bart Bryant was preparing for surgery to repair his left elbow five years ago, his long-term prognosis looked so bleak that his surgeon asked him, "Do you know how to do anything else?"
Swinging a golf club was the only thing Bryant had ever done and, after three surgeries and two decades of struggling to find his place on the PGA Tour, he is finally proving he can do it as well as anyone else in the world.
On Sunday, 12 days before his 43rd birthday, Bryant maintained his nerves on the course that golf legend Bobby Jones once called home, and beat 28 of the PGA Tour's top players to win the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club. Bryant's 3-under-par 67 gave him a four-round total of 17-under 263, a 72-hole record for the event. He finished six shots better than Tiger Woods and eight shots better than Scott Verplank.
"This is a dream come true. It exceeds all my expectations, especially when you look at where I was a year-and-a-half ago," Bryant said. "I didn't think I would make it in the Tour Championship, and I certainly didn't think I would win the Tour Championship."
Bryant won for the third time in 14 months and earned $1.17 million for Sunday's victory, bringing his annual earnings to $3.249 million, approximately $1.35 million more than his total prize money in his previous 13 seasons on the tour.
Bryant started the final round with a three-shot lead over defending champion Retief Goosen and four shots over Woods. Bryant, who said he "feared chucking his guts up all week," quickly birdied the first two holes and three of the first four to take a six-shot lead.
Bryant gave back a stroke when his drive found the right rough on the par 4, 529-yard fifth hole. The poor drive prevented him from reaching the green in two shots, so he had to settle for a bogey. Then, on the par-3, 155-yard sixth hole, Bryant watched Goosen, his playing partner, sail his tee shot over the green with a 9-iron. Bryant had an 8-iron in his hand, so he swung softer, instead of switching to a smaller club, and knocked his ball into the water.
"It started going through my mind, 'Okay, how many balls can we chuck into the water after this drop?'" Bryant said.
But after taking a drop, Bryant's third shot landed eight feet from the cup. He sank the putt for a bogey to remain at even par for the round and, more importantly, to stay four shots ahead of Goosen and Woods.
"The putt I made for bogey" on the sixth hole "was probably one of the best putts of my career," Bryant said.
Bryant birdied No. 9 to take a five-stroke lead over Goosen and Woods at the turn, and then pulled away for good with birdies on the 11th and 12th holes. Bryant made putts of 24 and 32 feet on those holes, after Woods had birded Nos. 10 and 12 while playing in the group in front of him.
"Tiger always lets you know he's around," Bryant said.
Woods has been the runner-up in three of the four Tour Championships held at East Lake Golf Club. Bryant was far more consistent off the tee, hitting 45 of 56 fairways; Goosen and Woods hit 43 fairways combined.
"Bart played beautifully all week," Woods said. "It was up to us to go get him because he wasn't coming back to us, and we didn't do that today. He just kept hitting fairways and greens and making a couple of putts, and he had a little spurt on the back nine that basically iced it."
Bryant, who was raised and educated in New Mexico and now lives in Ocoee, Fla., had played only six full seasons on the PGA Tour entering last year. He qualified for a PGA Tour card six times through qualifying school and failed to make the tour more times than he can remember. "I was there a bunch," Bryant said of Q-school. He did not attend one year during the mid-1990s, and instead decided to stay home with his family and the play on mini-tours in Florida.
"At that point, if I wasn't able to play well on the mini-tours and couldn't feed my family, I was going to have to find something else to do," Bryant said.
Bryant became a semi-regular on the PGA Tour in 1995, but didn't have much success before elbow surgeries derailed his career again in 2000 and 2003. He was out of golf for five months after each surgery, but came back both times and won his first PGA Tour event -- the 2004 Texas Open -- when he was playing on a medical extension. Bryant also had surgery to correct a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder in 1992.
"Everyone always knew he could play, but he was always hurt," said Bob Chaney, Bryant's caddie. "It's no fun to play when every time you go to swing, you know it's going to hurt. The game has always been there. Now, he's getting to use it."
Bryant planned to celebrate with his wife, Cathy, their two daughters and other family members. They'll celebrate for at least another day, and then Bryant faces another surgery, this time a minor procedure on his ailing left knee.
"It just feels like the thing to do," Bryant joked. "I haven't had surgery in a while."