An overnight sensation, Wesley Bryan's first Masters is practically in his own backyard

Wesley Bryan holds the trophy after winning RBC Heritage golf tournament in Hilton Head Island, S.C., on Sunday, April 16, 2017.
Wesley Bryan holds the trophy after winning RBC Heritage golf tournament in Hilton Head Island, S.C., on Sunday, April 16, 2017. AP

To find the ideal way to describe Wesley Bryan’s climb to a position of prominence on the PGA Tour, return to a September Sunday in 2017 at Conway Farms Golf Club in Lake Forest, Ill.

Final Round. BMW Championship. The third tournament in the Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs and the final step to the Tour Championship. Marc Leishman made the headline, taking down Rickie Fowler and Justin Rose to win by five shots.

And Wesley Bryan raced around those 7,200-plus yards that make up the Conway Farms layout in less than 90 minutes.

“Blink and you might miss (him) . . .”, a PGA Tour official tweeted. “. . . Crazy fast.”

Those last two words — crazy fast — pretty much describe Bryan’s jump from nowhere on mini tours to a household name for trick shots to a place among the top 100 golfers in the world in less than two years.

Bryan, who grew up in Chapin and sparkled at Dutch Fork High and the University of South Carolina, didn’t just hurry around Conway Farms with no sense of purpose that day. Going out alone because of an odd number of players in the field, he played darn good golf, posting a 2-under-par 69, and the darn good performance serves to describe his advancement at golf’s highest level.

He looks to write another chapter of success this week on golf’s grandest stage in the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club. Don’t blame him for being anxious; about the only thing slow in his progression is that he’s had to wait almost a year.

From a player with no status, and making ends meet by performing trick shots with brother George IV, Wesley worked his way through qualifying school for the Tour late in 2015, then took the circuit by storm in ’16. He tied for seventh in his first Web tourney, won the third and sixth, triumphed again in August and swept player of the year honors.

There's more. After getting his feet wet in the PGA Tour’s wrap-around 2016-17 season, Bryan had finishes of T4, T4 and T7 in successive starts and won the RBC Heritage in his 18th start in the big time. He zoomed up the world rankings and finished his rookie season with five top-10 finishes in 28 tournaments.

Crazy quick.

A Taco Bell guy

The victory in the Heritage — he became the first native South Carolinian to win the Palmetto State’s only PGA Tour event in its 49th year — came a week after Sergio Garcia’s win in the 2017 Masters, and Bryan’s notoriety increased.

His most noticed claim to fame? His celebratory victory meal at Taco Bell. “I’m a pretty simple guy,” Bryan said at the February media day to promote the 2018 Heritage. “I knew I was going to enjoy my favorite meal after I won my first PGA Tour tournament.”

He did the Taco Bell thing after his wins, too, but this time a selfie with his wife, Elizabeth, went viral and led to his becoming perhaps the restaurant chain’s most visible spokesman.

“I’m wearing a Taco Bell belt and play with Taco Bell (logoed) golf balls,” he said.

An added benefit: Bryan, who loves to cook and experiment with various combinations at home, had the opportunity to visit Taco Bell’s test kitchen and came up with a recipe for the company’s future consideration.

On the more productive side, he said, “I did a Crunch Wrap from the start to the customer’s bag in a minute and 25 seconds.”

Overall, he said, the almost-a-year between his Heritage victory and his first Masters start has been a fun ride.

“Just to be able to win in my home state was really, really special, and knowing that it punched my ticket to the Masters and opened up a lot of doors for me,” he said. “It’s been really, really cool, and I can’t wait to get back there and defend.”

Before that, there is the matter of the Masters, which is essentially a home game.

Course knowledge

Wesley and Elizabeth Bryan live in Augusta “about seven and a half minutes normally from Augusta National and probably 11 minutes in tournament-week traffic,” he said.

And even before his practice rounds, he had become familiar with the treasured course, thanks to the late Hootie Johnson, a USC graduate, Columbia resident and then the club’s chairman.

“My first memory?” he said, repeating the question. “We went with Mr. Johnson. I had had knee surgery and couldn’t play (golf), so he put me in a cart and told me to just stay off the greens and tees. I had a ball.”

Bryan had a ringside seat to one of the events that caused the course to be lengthened during Johnson’s tenure at the helm. George IV hit a wedge for his second shot into the par-4 17th hole, and Bryan remembered, “Mr. Johnson said, ‘Dadgum it, we’ve got to do something about that.’ ”

Bryan also attended the 2017 Masters to watch friend Russell Henley, who had secured the final spot in the field by winning the Houston Open a week earlier.

The Masters will be Bryan’s fourth major and he will be striving for better results; he missed the cut in the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship last year.

He called his game “a work in progress” in the days leading to the Masters, and tournament results have not been stellar since his Heritage triumph. Other than a tie for third in the John Deere, he struggled over the latter half of 2017, and his best finish in nine starts this season has been a tie for 27th.

His world ranking has dropped from a high of 36th after the John Deere to the current 89th — still excellent but short of his expectations. The key to success at Augusta National starts with driving, and that part of the game statistically has been his biggest challenge.

Bryan ranks 214th in shots gained off the tee, a number that his sterling short game and excellent putting (16th) have not been able to overcome.

“I’m playing better than the results,” he said. “I know I’m going to have highs and lows on the golf course. I want to stay humble in the high points and don’t get low on the low points. I just want to stay level-headed and be prepared for the next tournament.”

Should his preparation for the Masters work and he win the coveted Green Jacket, one problem he will not face involves the menu for the Champions’ Dinner. Taco Bell will deliver.

How to watch

What: 2018 Masters

When: Thursday-Sunday

Where: Augusta National Golf Club

TV: Thursday and Friday, ESPN, 3-7:30 p.m.; Saturday, CBS, 3-7 p.m.; Sunday, CBS, 2-7 p.m.