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THE DIRT ON DIRT BRAD BRYANT IS NOT SO DUMB AS TO LET A LITTLE SUCCESS SOIL HIS EARTHY IMAGE

Dec. 04, 1995
Dec. 04, 1995

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Dec. 4, 1995

THE DIRT ON DIRT BRAD BRYANT IS NOT SO DUMB AS TO LET A LITTLE SUCCESS SOIL HIS EARTHY IMAGE

Brad Bryant, the tournament winner and would-be fashion
designer, takes a long draw on the straw of his Big Gulp Diet
Coke and looks up at the sun filtering through the surrounding
pines. His fall 1996 collection, he has just explained, will
consist of a line of "Dr. Dirt" sportswear--clothing that looks
like you just played golf, even if you didn't. "Priced right,"
he says. "Nice stuff, but it won't cost an arm and a leg."

This is an article from the Dec. 4, 1995 issue Original Layout

The notion is not new. In the early '80s, when he was a
promising young player on the PGA Tour, Bryant floated his idea
for a personal clothing line to a few businessmen and Tour
colleagues. The businessmen were intrigued, if slow to reach for
their checkbooks. The golfers were generous with suggestions on
how to achieve the Brad Bryant look: prewrinkled fabric, faux
sweat stains, buttonholes slightly offset from buttons. "You
wouldn't have real colors," Bryant told potential investors.
"You'd have earth tones."

A decade later the idea is still percolating in Bryant's mind.
Standing with him in the parking lot of David Leadbetter's Golf
Academy in Lake Nona, Fla., one can't help speculating on the
logo for a Dr. Dirt line: An oil smear? An artful smudge? The
interior of his minivan--choked with empty cups, toys, cigar
wrappers, Happy Meal boxes, fishing gear and golf
equipment--suggests an appropriate breast-pocket crest: crossed
golf clubs over a garbage can.

But, you know, Bryant's lavender shirt fits just fine and sports
a crisp Taylor Made logo. He is not always the rumpled, unshaven
rube that Tour mythology has made of him since the late '70s,
when former touring pro Gary McCord dubbed him "Dirt," after a
grimy character in a motor-oil commercial. Bryant, who will turn
41 on Dec. 11, no longer arrives at tournament sites in a pickup
truck pulling a fifth-wheel trailer. He doesn't open a sack
lunch in the locker room, as he did regularly while languishing,
nearly a decade ago, on the Florida mini-tours. If he is still
the butt of jokes, it is because neither he nor his tormentors
wish to abandon the rites of camaraderie. Smiles broke out last
April when Bryant, playing in his first Masters, wore tennis
shoes into the clubhouse of the stately Augusta National Golf
Club. "My friends on Tour swear that I have a bull's-eye painted
on my shirt," Bryant says, "because everybody gives me so much
flak. Of course, I probably deserve it."

What Bryant really deserved, after 18 years on the Tour and $2.8
million in career earnings, was a win. So joy was abundant in
October when Bryant shot a final-round 68 in front of friends
and family to win the rain-shortened Walt Disney World
Oldsmobile Classic at Lake Buena Vista, Fla. The residents of
Mousetown, from Mickey on down, consider Bryant one of their
own. He is a familiar figure there, practicing on the Disney
courses and fishing in the Disney lakes. "I've never seen so
many people cry at one time," recalls Jeff Sargent, operations
manager at the resort's Bonnet Creek Golf Club. "It was a real
Disney ending."

Except that Disney doesn't make many movies about paunchy,
mustachioed, cigar-smoking athletes. Bryant's half-man,
half-'toon persona has long fascinated Tour observers. Hailed as
"golf's friendliest man," Bryant nevertheless used to annoy his
playing partners by sulking over bad shots. Quick to laugh, he
is even quicker to stun the casual acquaintance with a blunt
political observation or to defy the majority at a Tour policy
board meeting. Jaws dropped at Augusta when he told a reporter,
"I am so adamantly pro-life that I am one step away from the
people who are out with their rifles shooting doctors."

Ask Bryant what gives, and he looks chagrined. "I'm one of those
poor souls," he explains, "who have no choice but to wear their
feelings on their sleeves. It's not necessary for everybody to
be right, but it's necessary for everybody to be heard." Given
an opening, Bryant will jump in with an opinion on issues
national (he's anti-Hillary and pro-public schools) or parochial
(he hates square grooves on clubs used by Tour pros and loathes
most golf courses built in the '70s and '80s). Occasionally he
will drop back from a too-forward position, but not in a panic.
The notorious abortion quote, he says, was accurate as far as it
went but failed to capture his position. "I didn't choose my
words properly. I said something flippant, and it came out as,
'This guy's off the charts on this issue.'" He smiles. "Which I
probably am. But guys who blow up abortion clinics and shoot
doctors--they're taking a life. It's wrong."

The truth is, Bryant is so practiced an iconoclast and so
comically earnest at times that he wonders if anybody takes him
seriously. Whatever he says, does, wears or eats is fodder for
other Tour players, who over the years have promoted him from
"Dirt" to "Dr. Dirt" to "Commander-in-Chief of All Dirt Forces."
Players roared when Inside the PGA Tour showed Bryant fly
casting into the limbs of a tree. ("I told them I couldn't cast
from under the tree," Bryant claims, "but they said the light
was better there. At the end of the show, they had me flailing
in the tree with the fly rod.") Earlier this year fellow fishing
fanatic Nick Faldo went out on Lake Nona with Bryant and got
drenched when Bryant fired up his flats boat without killing the
trolling motor first--a gaffe that Faldo gleefully spilled to
reporters at the first opportunity. Bryant responds to such
provocation with a smile. "One of my more endearing qualities,"
he says with insight, "is that I don't take seriously things
that aren't serious."

When pressed to describe himself, Dr. Dirt picks the word
different--different, at least, from the many pro golfers who cut
their teeth at country clubs. Brad and his younger brother Bart,
who has also played the PGA Tour, were born in Texas, the sons
of a Southern Baptist preacher. "Every time my dad went to a new
church, he took a cut in pay," says Bryant, recalling stops in
Last Picture Show towns like Gatesville and Rosebud. "He went
where he felt God wanted him." Bryant was exposed to golf by a
family friend, and after moving with his family to Alamogordo,
N.Mex., he was one of three scratch players on a state
championship high school golf team. Later, at the University of
New Mexico, he was able to polish his game without losing his
folksiness. "Unpretentious is the word for Brad," says Sue, his
wife of 19 years and mother of their sons, Jamieson, 4, and
Jonathan, 2. "We met at the Chinese Dragon restaurant, which had
the best Mexican food in Alamogordo. Eighteen days later we were
engaged."

When Bryant joined the PGA Tour in the fall of 1978, he quickly
gained a reputation as a gifted ball striker who needed only to
control his putter and his temper to become a winner. He
finished 67th on the money list in his first full season, and in
1982 he cracked the top 40 and had two second-place finishes,
including a one-stroke loss to the late-charging Jerry Pate at
the Tournament Players Championship. But as quickly as he had
risen, Bryant fell. At the 1984 PGA at Shoal Creek, he badly
wrenched his left shoulder when he caught an iron in the rough.
The following year he won only $1,683, and surgeons had him in
stitches, instead of the other way around. In 1986 he lost his
card and suffered the indignity--albeit gladly--of returning to
the U.S. Open as a caddie for his brother Bart.

It took a year of brown-bagging on the Florida mini-tours and
three tries at the Q school for Bryant to get his card back. By
1991, however, his mediocre, if consistent, play had him
questioning his course. "I felt I was doomed to being number 90
on the money list, just barely inside the top 100," he says,
"where if you have a bad year, you're worried about losing your
Tour card." Hoping for one last chance to unlock what he thought
was genuine potential, Bryant turned to David Leadbetter, the
English teaching pro who successfully rebuilt the swings of
Faldo and Nick Price.

"David told me that he wanted to change my takeaway, my
backswing, my downswing and my follow-through," Bryant says.
"But he said I could still play righthanded." That, of course,
was if Bryant could play at all. In his first year with
Leadbetter, Bryant kept his Tour card on the strength of just
one good week, a second-place finish in the 1991 Buick Classic.
If Leadbetter was the swing mechanic, former U.S. Open champion
Curtis Strange proved to be the mind melder. "You get mad at bad
golf shots," Strange told Bryant after they had played a couple
of tournament rounds together. Bryant, puzzled, said, "Well,
yeah. What's your point?" And Strange replied, "The only reason
you should get angry on a golf course is because you make bogeys."

To Bryant, Strange's comment was a revelation. "It's just
amazing how much better I handle bad golf shots now."

It's equally amazing how many good shots Bryant hits, now that
he's comfortable with his new swing. Last year he soared to 18th
on the money list, finished second at Doral and Greensboro,
wound up a stroke out of a playoff at the lucrative Tour
Championship and inherited the dread label of "best Tour player
never to have won a tournament." At year's end in partnership
with LPGA player Marta Figueras-Dotti, he did win a tournament,
the JCPenney Classic, but it was "unofficial." ("At my next
tournament, all of my so-called friends yelled, 'It doesn't
count! You had a woman helping you!'") This year was even better
for Bryant, who earned a personal-record $723,834 and got his
first Tour victory, the Disney, on his 486th try. Bryant even
made another run at winning the season-ending Tour Championship,
leading the field at Southern Hills after two rounds, only to
wind up tied for seventh after a Sunday-morning detour to a
Tulsa hospital to be treated for severe nausea.

Amazingly, Bryant insists that "nothing has changed." He still
plans to retire from full-time tournament play at age 45, so he
can coach Little League and watch his boys grow up. He sees no
need to replace his 10-year-old flats boat or give up his
buck-and-a-quarter stogies for expensive Cuban cigars. He does
plan to fire at a few more flagsticks, now that he's exempt from
qualifying for two years. And there's always the clothing line
to launch, if he can find some befuddled corporate
entity--WorldWide Pants?--to front the money.

But don't expect Bryant to come clean. Being plain as dirt got
him where he is, and he'll happily play the role until he's dust.

"Although," he says, in a rare display of runaway hubris, "I
don't think I'm as uninteresting as dirt."

That's Bryant. He not only provides the target, but he also tees
it up for you.

COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Bryant's first victory came in his 486th start on Tour. [Brad Bryant]COLOR PHOTO: BOB MARTIN Strange (playing out of trouble) helped Bryant learn the difference between bad shots and bogeys. [Curtis Strange]COLOR PHOTO: BEN VAN HOOK The line on Bryant had been that he was quicker to junk his golf swing than his 10-year-old boat. [Brad Bryant fishing from boat]