Dr. Dirt blows his cover

Dr. Dirt blows his cover

Brad Bryant finished at six under par.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

Haven, Wis. — Brad Bryant has gone and done it now. He has totally messed up his reputation as a journeyman, underdog and rank-and-file player. Even worse, probably no one is going to call him Doctor Dirt anymore.

That’s what happens when you win the U.S. Open, even if it’s the U.S. Senior Open. It’s a major championship on its level, so Bryant is going to have to cultivate a new, upgraded image. He’s no longer just some guy trying to make a living at golf. He has officially established himself as one of the players to beat on the Champions Tour. Right now, he’s in that elite club with Jay Haas and Loren Roberts and, maybe, Fred Funk, if he ever decides to deplane from the PGA Tour.

And while it’s true that Tom Watson lost the U.S. Senior Open, struggling to a closing 78 that included a who-is-that-guy 43 on the final nine, it’s also true that Bryant won the Senior Open. His 68 was the round of the day. George Zahringer, who shot 69, was the only other player to break 70 in the gusting winds and temperatures in the upper 90s. Watson appeared to run out of gas. Bryant appeared to reaffirm his status as a rising senior star.

“I hope people put in perspective what an incredible round Brad Bryant played,” said the former U.S. Open champion Andy North, who was on hand for Sunday’s final round to follow his close friend, Tom Watson. “He hit it like a machine. Brad is that kind of ballstriker, he’s exceptional. He’s a guy who has struggled with his putting throughout his lifetime, and he’s gotten better the last few years. He’s going to win a lot of tournaments. He’s got unbelievable length. He can be a three- or four-win-a-year guy.”

This was the fourth senior victory for Bryant, 52, whose only PGA Tour win was the 1995 Disney/Oldsmobile Classic. So a major title is new territory for Bryant. It’s understandable that he still wants to play the J-card — journeyman — when he sees his name on the Senior Open trophy with Palmer, Nicklaus, Trevino and the rest.

“It’s an unbelievable honor to have my name listed with those guys,” Bryant said. “Let’s face it; I’m not in their league. I wasn’t, and as far as golf goes, I never will be. Those are the greats of the greats of all the game. I’m a journeyman who happened to have a really great week. To have my name on that trophy is more special than I can tell you. As time goes by, it will become even more special.”

Bryant’s comeback has been remarkable. He unofficially retired in 1999 to spend more time with his family in Lakeland, Fla., and came back after five years away from the game a better player. He won twice last year, and lost to Jay Haas in a playoff at last year’s Senior PGA Championship, also a major. The most impressive part of Bryant’s rise has been his play under pressure. The last three holes at windy Whistling Straits were playing difficult, but Bryant hit nothing but quality shots.

The shot of the tournament, in his eyes, was a strong 3-wood that he busted pin-high just off the right edge of the par-5 16th hole. That enabled him to bounce a short chip close to the hole and make a birdie. Watson was making a mess of the 15th at the same time, taking a double bogey, and though he didn’t know it, Bryant suddenly had a three-shot lead.

The par-3 17th is a long, infamous par 3, with no good place to miss the green. Bryant was iced on the tee while the twosome ahead both struggled to make double bogeys. Then he rifled a 5-iron shot to six feet in the wind, a tremendous clutch effort. He missed the birdie putt, but by then it didn’t matter. At 18, another treacherous Pete Dye-designed hole that the players feared and loathed, he played two smart shots to the middle of the green and made a par.

That 68 left him as the only player in the field to shoot par or better every day of the tournament. Even with that strong finish, Bryant said he was lucky that Watson and Roberts both played poorly in the final round, something he wouldn’t have expected.

“It was really scripted for Tom Watson,” Bryant said. “The winds, the heat, it was really his day.”

In the end, though, it was Bryant’s day. Ben Crenshaw, the runner up, finished three strokes back. Make no mistake, it was a big day for Bryant, who has two wins on the senior circuit this year and six other top-five finishes.

“When you win a U.S. Open — this is it,” Bryant said. “This is the big apple. This is the tournament that, when you turn 50, this is the biggest event you get to play in the rest of your life. If I go play in the U.S. Open next year with the young guys, I’m playing to make the cut. If I make the cut there, boy, I’ve really done well. So from a significance standpoint, this is actually a step into history. And I don’t know how to explain how a guy like me gets to do something like that, but it’s a real privilege.”

Doctor Dirt is dead. The 2007 U.S. Senior Open champ lives.