For Bart Bryant, En-Joie Golf Club will always be special.
As a 50-year-old rookie on the Champions Tour and wondering about his future as a player, Bryant won the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open last year, becoming the tour’s 1,000th winner and erasing a lot of doubt in his mind.
"It was kind of big for me," Bryant said this week. "I had been out for about three years. At that time, my game was really an unknown. I wasn’t sure what I could do, how I could play. As the year went on, I started realizing I might have some semblance of a game."
Bryant won in his 14th start on the circuit. It was his first victory since winning the 2005 Tour Championship, ending a drought of 7 years, 9 months, 11 days. He also won the 2005 Memorial and the 2004 Valero Texas Open on the PGA Tour.
That was before two surgeries on his left wrist relegated him to spectator status for nearly three years and left him wondering if he’d ever play again, let alone win.
"To pull out a win my first year back after being hurt was pretty big for me," Bryant said. "It gave me the belief that I could do this. It gave me some confidence, let me know I was going to be OK."
Bryant shot a tournament record-tying 10-under 62 in the second round to build a four-shot lead and closed with a 72 to finish at 16-under 200, one shot better than Russ Cochran and Corey Pavin.
Bryant is paired with Willie Wood, who won the tournament in 2012, and Fred Funk in the penultimate threesome on Friday’s opening round. Since the Dick’s Sporting Goods Open began in 2007, there have been no repeat winners.
Bryant stands 17th on Tour in 2014 earnings ($504,883) and ranks among the top 10 in driving accuracy, scoring average and accuracy, which is paramount on the short-and-narrow En-Joie layout.
"You have to hit the ball straight, and that’s kind of always been my forte on tour," Bryant said. "The thing about this course, you have to position the ball well in the fairway, and that’s one thing that I’ve really been doing. If I can drive the ball well, I think could have an opportunity to do something good again."
Funk’s week already has been memorable. Deputy Mayor Dave Baker presented Funk, the En-Joie career money leader, with a key to the Village of Endicott. Funk is the only player to hit $1 million in career earnings at En-Joie and has won nine times on the Champions Tour.
Colin Montgomerie, Bernhard Langer and Mark O’Meara are together in the final group on Friday, part of another strong field for the tournament. Langer has $2,375,020 in money earnings this year and is seeking to become the first player to cross the $3-milllion mark in single-season earnings since Hale Irwin set an all-time record in 2002 with $3,028,304.
Kenny Perry, D.A. Weibring, Corey Pavin, Gil Morgan, and Jim Thorpe withdrew on Wednesday.