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Bryan looks beyond

A week ago, South Carolina sophomore George Bryan IV, on the strength of his first collegiate victory, was named national player of the week by both Golf World and Golfweek magazines — the first such award for a USC golfer since 2000.

Come June, Bryan has a somewhat loftier prize in mind: NCAA player of the year.

"That's been my ultimate goal from the start of the year; player of the week is one step on the way to that," the 20-year-old Chapin native said as the Gamecocks prepared for today's start of the Furman Intercollegiate, their third tournament in as many weeks.

This week, Bryan is ranked 41st nationally by Golfweek/Sagarin and 39th by Golfstat. "We've got five tournaments left," he said, "and if I play like I'm capable, I've got a chance ... to be the best in college golf."

That's a stout ambition for a guy who has to work hard just to be the best in his family.

Still, after he shot 66-69 for a one-shot victory at the Schenkel E-Z-Go Invitational in Statesboro, Ga., sinking a final-hole birdie to edge the nation's No. 2-ranked Michael Thompson of Alabama, USC coach Bill McDonald isn't putting anything past Bryan.

"He's been solid all along, but that (Schenkel field, featuring Golf World No. 1 Alabama and No. 9 Florida) was a little different level," McDonald said. "The 66 that George shot in the second round was one of the best I've ever seen: no bogeys, tough wind conditions.

"Obviously, he'll have to get on a streak, win a couple more and challenge at the SEC and NCAA (championships), but I think it's doable. I think he's got no chance if he doesn't believe he can."

Bryan's sturdy confidence took a mild hit last week when he shot 71-72-73 at the Hootie at Bulls Bay Intercollegiate near Charleston, tying for 24th; his 72.19 scoring average is second for USC behind senior Mark Anderson. Still, the Gamecocks tied for second at the Hootie (with Clemson, behind runaway winner N.C. State) for their second top-three finish in as many weeks.

"In the fall, a couple of guys would play good each round," Bryan said. "Now, we're all playing well together."

USC's climb in national stature — the Gamecocks are 15th and 16th in the two college polls — began last spring when Bryan, a freshman, led his team to a surprising NCAA West Regional title. He said he and his teammates are gearing up for another postseason run.

"We're better now than we were last year this time," Bryan said.

They could be even better next season when highly rated recruit Sam Braver of Georgia, Bryan's brother Wesley, S.C.'s top junior, and Spartanburg's Clint Tolleson join a squad that loses seniors Anderson and Columbia's Warren Thomas.

McDonald tries not to look ahead, but admits he likes USC's prospects, especially the idea of having Bryan intra-family slugfests as part of weekly qualifying.

"I think the two of them have pushed each other all along," the coach said. "It should be interesting."

It's already been that for Bryan in 2008. At Christmas, he had his former mop-like hair shaven to a tight trim. No surprise, that came as part of a dare with his younger brother.

"We decided to take it to the extreme," the elder Bryan said. "It was my idea, but he went first, so I couldn't back down."

Not if he wants to be the best in the nation.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.