Golf's Future in Full Swing
PGA Tour winner Wesley Bryan looks back at his life-changing victory at the Digital Ally Open as KC looks ahead to this year's tournament.
photo provided by Mark Higgins
Wesley Bryan didn't have to win last year's Digital Ally Open in Overland Park to punch a ticket to the PGA Tour.
It just got him there quicker.
In a playoff with Grayson Murray and J.T. Poston, both PGA Tour rookies in their own right, Bryan prevailed on the second extra hole with a birdie. It was the third victory of the 2016 season for Bryan on the Web.com Tour, the gateway to the next level of golf where all professional golfers dream of playing.
Three wins in a Web.com Tour season automatically grants you exemption to the PGA Tour, and with that battlefield promotion on the line, Bryan hit what he describes as the "shot of the year" for him, a 6-iron right over the flagstick on the par-3 17th hole.
"I knew I had that putt to win and go straight to the PGA Tour," Bryan tells 435. "Basically when the ball was right on the putter face, I knew that I was going to the PGA Tour."
Things got real when he saw his ball disappear into the cup and his wife, Elizabeth, ran up to him on the green for a celebratory hug. That playoff win was the cherry on top of an already fun week for the 27-year-old Bryan, who had been known in the golf community for his elaborate YouTube trick-shot artistry with his brother, George.
"I actually got to hang out a good bit with one of my best high school buds I played on the golf team with in Columbia, South Carolina, and he now lives in Overland Park," Bryan says. "And then I got in contention, and my wife flew out on Saturday night and was able to watch me on Sunday. The most special part was having my dad and my wife there to share that special moment with me."
Bryan's 20-under-par, 264 total is right around average for the seven winners this tournament has produced at the Nicklaus Golf Club at LionsGate. So the 7,237-yard, par-71 course is eminently scorable for these guys, and they know it.
"I love the golf course. It's not a brutally difficult course, but there's holes where you definitely have to think and place your ball in specific spots," Bryan says. "There's a few really tough holes, but by the same token, there's some really gettable holes, some shorter par-4s [like 16] and reachable par-5s [like 13]. It's all in all just a really fun golf course to play."
Bryan, who won his first PGA Tour event in April in his home state at the MCI Heritage at Hilton Head, is on a solid list of past champions at Nicklaus Golf Club. Shawn Stefani has two career second-place finishes and has made more than $4.5 million on tour since he won here in 2012. Jamie Lovemark, the 2013 champ, finished in the top 50 in the Fed Ex Cup race in 2016. And Martin Piller put on a bravura performance in 2015, shooting a 26-under-par total to win by four and send him back to the PGA Tour after a five-year absence.
To join those winners, two crucial parts of Bryan's game were working in his favor.
"I was driving the ball really well that week, and the putter got pretty hot there really for the whole week," Bryan says. "When that combo's going, I feel like, on a course that's not overly long, I like my chances of competing. So it was kind of the perfect storm that week."
But to hang with Murray and Poston, he also needed a clutch wedge shot on 16. He was only even par for the day standing on the 12th tee on an overcast Sunday, but he birdied four of the next five holes.
"They both hit driver right up on the front edge and had really easy two-putts for birdie. I didn't have the length to get there, so I had to lay up with a four-iron," Bryan says. "But I was able to hit a wedge in there like three or four feet and keep up with them to make birdie and not fall too behind at that point. That was probably the most crucial swing that I made."
This year's Digital Ally Open, which is being contested July 27-30, is once again in the middle of a grueling stretch that includes 13 straight weeks of tournaments before the Web.com Tour Finals begin on Labor Day weekend. It's imperative for the players to get as many opportunities as possible to earn their PGA Tour card at this point in the season, but Bryan didn't have to worry about playing several weeks in a row last year because of his two other victories in his third and sixth tries, respectively.
Of the 15 events he played on the Web.com Tour in 2016, Bryan has nothing but love for Kansas City.
"I think it's the best Web.com Tour stop," he says. "We got to go to a Royals game; there's a lot of great restaurants there; it's a really nice, neat, clean neighborhood particularly, and I like that. Honestly, it was probably overall my most enjoyable experience on the Web.com Tour."
Although the field doesn't take shape until the Friday before the tournament, some of the guys that could tee it up are:
– Andrew Putnam tied for fourth at LionsGate last year and has a win to his credit in Panama in 2017. After playing 23 events on the PGA Tour in 2015, he should be back on the big tour next season.
– Andrew Landry made a splash at the 2016 U.S. Open by tying eventual winner Dustin Johnson for the 36-hole lead. Landry has also won on the Web.com Tour this season in January in the Bahamas.
– Stephan Jaeger, the winner of this year's BMW Charity Pro-Am, shot a 58 the week before last year's Digital Ally Open.
– Aaron Wise, the NCAA individual champion for Oregon in 2016, could be on the verge of moving into the top 25 in earnings with a couple more strong results.
Just as he did last year, Bryan says mastering Jack Nicklaus' greens at the Digital Ally Open is the key to everything.
"It's a course where scores go really low, so you have to putt well," Bryan says. "You have to make birdies and make putts, or else you're not really going to compete. That is first and foremost for that week."