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."
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-I Hilary 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, Jamie-son, 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.