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.