ATLANTA (AP) – Bart Bryant is starting to believe he can compete with the best. If his victory at the Memorial wasn’t enough to convince him, the course-record 62 he shot Thursday at East Lake should do the trick.

A career-grinder and late bloomer, the 42-year-old Bryant made the most of his Tour Championship debut by missing only two fairways and two greens, and making one spectacular par save that gave him a two-shot lead over defending champion Retief Goosen.

Kenny Perry bogeyed the last two holes for a 65, while Tiger Woods and Sergio Garcia were at 66.

Woods was at 5 under through eight holes and was poised to shoot 29 on the front until failing to convert an easy up-and-down for birdie from the bunker. He struggled the rest of the way, but had few complaints.

Bryant had nothing to complain about, either.

He must have known it was his day when he faced an awkward stance left of the 17th green – set up by one of his few mediocre shots – and was hopeful of getting the chip within 10 feet. Instead, Bryant’s shot banged into the pin and rattled the cup before settling a tap-in distance away.

Bryant wound up breaking by one shot the record set by Vijay Singh in the first round in 1998.

And it was further proof that Bryant, who has gone through three injuries and a half-dozen trips to Q-school, belongs with the other top 28 players on the money list at this Tour Championship.

No one gave him a free pass to East Lake.

Bryant won for the first time last year at the Texas Open, then validated it with a par from the hazard on the 18th hole at Muirfield Village to win the Memorial. He has continued to play well enough to get to No. 22 on the money list.

Goosen made eight birdies in a round of 64, the same score he shot on the last day a year ago to win the Tour Championship. This time, it wasn’t even good enough for the lead.

Not many would have guessed it would come from a player who had never seen East Lake until this week.

“What a round of golf that is,” Charles Howell III said after a 67. “I saw him at 8 under and thought he was playing a scramble with Ted Purdy.”

Twelve out of the 29 players at East Lake broke par, a tribute to a gorgeous afternoon with hardly any wind, and a course that is playing firm and fast. Even so, Bryant’s score got everyone’s attention.

“I wasn’t expecting 8 under,” Davis Love III said after a 68. “I wasn’t expecting 6 under.”

Bryant’s expectations keep getting higher, although it wasn’t always that way. There were times he would lie awake and wonder if his journey through the smaller tours and too many trips to Q-school were a sign that maybe he should find another job.

It started to turn around when his swing coach, Brian Mogg, showed him six years of statistics and asked Bryant if they belonged to a guy who should be doing well on the PGA Tour. Bryant agreed.

“It was me,” he said. “I think I finally started buying into the belief that maybe I belonged out here, and I certainly wasn’t going to chicken out anymore. I was going to put my neck on the line, and try to get in the lead. And if I failed, so what? I’m just too old to care about it anymore.”

But he cares about being at the Tour Championship, one of the sweetest rewards for all his travails. Bryant had never finished higher than 80th on the money list until this year.

“From where we’ve been to where we are now, maybe kind of through the school of hard knocks, maybe we appreciate it a little bit more,” he said.

Woods, who needs a victory this week to become the first $11 million man in golf, was all over the place. He started out as if he would be the one to break the East Lake record, firing at flags from the fairway and hitting great shots when he wound up in the rough.

What hurt him was the sand.

He missed the simple up-and-down on the ninth, blasted out too far on the 10th and made bogey, and lost another chance at birdie with a poor bunker shot on the par-5 15th.

“There’s so much sand in these bunkers, you have to put a lot of speed on the ball,” he said. “And I didn’t.”

Bryant didn’t have too much trouble, and got a few breaks when he did miss a shot. He sent his tee shot in the right rough on the 16th and expected the worst, only to see his ball sitting up nicely in the grass.

The biggest break came on the 17th with a chip he didn’t think he could get close.

“I could have bogeyed those two holes,” Bryant said. “Other than that, I played extremely solid.”

AP-ES-11-03-05 1814EST


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