Golf

How Wesley Bryan went from trick-shot artist to PGA Tour winner

Wesley Bryan’s parents share the experience of watching their son win the RBC Heritage

George and Valerie Bryan watched their son golf his way to a championship
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George and Valerie Bryan watched their son golf his way to a championship

Wesley Bryan came from behind to win the RBC Heritage two weeks ago, earning $1.17 million, vaulting into the top 40 in the World Golf Rankings and collecting his first title on the PGA Tour in only his 18th start.

Borrowing a thought Gary Koch used to describe a Tiger Woods’ putt: “Better than most. Better than most.”

A day later, back home in Augusta, Wesley Bryan had dinner waiting for wife Elizabeth after her return from work – like always.

“He’s no different now than he’s been,” she said. “Of course, we’re very excited about his winning, but we’re still the same.”

They should be excited. Wesley – who grew up in Chapin and played at Dutch Fork High and the University of South Carolina – and his golf game are on a magic carpet ride. The 15-month journey has blossomed from no status on professional golf’s top tours to 2016 Web.com Player of the Year honors and now a triumph on the game’s top circuit.

Consider his record in high school and junior golf and his qualifying for almost every USGA amateur event and, yeah, this is where he should be. Consider his quality, but not spectacular, college career (2008-12) and, hmmm, maybe. Consider his play on mini-tours and no, this is totally unexpected.

Where did this come from?

“Before he went to qualifying school (for the Web.com Tour) in late 2015, he told me, ‘Dad, I’ve decided to just do what I do. I’ve got what I’ve got, and I’m going to play with it,’ and that’s exactly what he’s been doing,” his father, George Bryan III, said.

Playing “his way” has been special.

“You can watch him play and never know what his score is,” Elizabeth Bryan said. “He’s the same person when he plays well and when he plays badly. If he plays badly, give him five minutes and he’s back to his normal self.”

The good rounds have far outweighed the bad ones in his zooming into prominence. Casual fans might still identify him more with the trick-shot artistry of the Bryan Brothers – Wesley and George IV – but he’s living his dream of success on the PGA Tour.

Bryan goes about his business on the golf course with a quiet confidence. After opening the Heritage with a 2-under 69, he talked about his goals. Unlike many rookies, he didn’t mention the focus on “keeping his card,” he said simply, “I want to win. … It’s just golf.”

Three days later, he did just that, demonstrating what Elizabeth calls “a humble but confident” persona.

“Humble” and “confident” did not always describe Wesley, his parents, George III and Valerie, said. “Cocky” might be a better description early.

“Wesley expected to do well, and when he didn’t or when he did not play to his expectations, it crushed him,” his dad, a PGA professional, said. “He did not take (failure) well, and there were some broken clubs to prove it.”

“The old Wesley … everybody around would know when he played badly,” his mom, a teacher at Chapin Elementary School, said. “Now, you can’t tell how he’s playing.”

“He has listened to his coaches; Dr. Mo (sports psychologist Morris Pickens) and (teaching pro) Mike Bender have worked wonders,” George III said. “He understood the concept of the competitive spirit early. He always had a passion to play and play well, but he could get angry in junior and college golf. The State Amateur at Columbia Country Club (lost in a playoff) … that crushed him. Wesley played well, very well, but Drew Ernst got him.”

There were great streaks, like the one in 2007. He shattered the South Carolina Junior Championship record by seven shots and followed by qualifying for the U.S. Junior with rounds of 70-62. There was an occasional bad one, like the college tournament in which he shot 100 and accidentally signed for 101.

“In the (2007) junior at Orangeburg Country Club – this is no exaggeration – Wesley has never played as good as he did in that tournament,” his dad said. “They had the course set up very difficult, but he won by a bunch. It was crazy, and it was an indication to me that his game was a real golf game. Seriously, he was spectacular.

“Then the next week was qualifying for the U.S. Junior Amateur and he did it again. Those two tournaments … that’s where all this really started.”

Older brother George IV enjoyed a more successful college golf career, and, Valerie Bryan said, “I think the reason is he liked school more. He balanced academics and golf better. Wesley did well in college golf, but he didn’t like to go to school.”

Valerie Bryan remembered young Wesley’s getting upset with the lack of distance on his drives, and getting off the tee still isn’t his strength. But his short game and putting compensate. At the Heritage, he led the field in the shots-gained-putting statistic with 3.78.

“Wesley could always putt and chip well,” his dad said. “Throughout junior golf, he’s really always had the ability to play well at the right time and get consistent. That’s hard to do, but he could ramp it up when it’s time. He was definitely different in that regard.”

He’s doing that again. In addition to his victory at Hilton Head, he has three top-seven finishes in 15 starts in the PGA Tour’s 2016-17 wrap-around season.

Go back 15 months. No PGA status, known for trick shots, and here Wesley Bryan – playing “his way” – is in the final round of qualifying school for the Web.com Tour at crunch time.

“The last six holes the last day of qualifying … he was one shot inside what he needed and then played the best golf I’ve ever seen,” George III said. “We were at PGA National with the wind blowing 30-40 miles per hour. He played those last six holes, including the Bear Trap, in 2-under par.

“I stood under the scoreboard on No. 13, and saw the numbers and saw the disaster going on all around him. And he scorched it. He didn’t hesitate in those conditions. He stepped up and hit the shots. Other guys were indecisive, wondering what the wind would do and such, and Wesley never wavered. I still haven’t seen a stretch like that, and I have seen him win two Web.com tournaments and one PGA Tour tournament. I’ve never seen anybody play like that.”

And now, the media obligations met and the family dinner over on that Sunday night two weeks ago, Wesley and Elizabeth headed home, in order for her to be at work at 8 a.m. Monday. They arrived in Augusta after midnight and stopped for his signature celebratory meal at Taco Bell.

That night, nothing changed. He had dinner on the table after his wife returned from work – like always.

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