ATLANTA (AP) – Nothing ever came easily for Bart Bryant until he turned the Tour Championship into a Sunday afternoon stroll among the magnificent colors of autumn at East Lake.

During his vagabond years of bouncing between Q-school and mini-tours, he used to lie awake at night and wonder if he should find a better way to support his family. When he did play well, he took himself out of contention because he was afraid to fail.

But when he tapped in a par putt to finish off a wire-to-wire, record-setting victory at the Tour Championship, the 42-year-old Bryant only had to look back at four spectacular days and one incredible year to see how far he had come.

He closed with a 3-under 67 to beat Tiger Woods by six shots.

His 17-under 263 broke by four shots the Tour Championship record set five years ago by Phil Mickelson.

And the $1.17 million check was more money than he earned his first 18 years on the PGA and Nationwide tours. A guy who had never finished higher than 80th on the money list ended the year with over $3.2 million to finish ninth.

“I’m thrilled beyond description,” Bryant said. “To have struggled for as long as I did, and all of a sudden in the last 15 months to win three events, even if I hadn’t won this weekend, this would all be worth it.”

Not win? It wasn’t even close.

Bryant started the day with a three-shot lead over Retief Goosen and birdied the first two holes. The only glitch he had was a bogey from the rough on the 520-yard, par-4 fifth hole – the toughest at East Lake – and a 9-iron into the water on the par-3 sixth.

But he saved bogey with an 8-foot putt and steadied himself quickly.

“I felt like I was supposed to make that putt,” Bryant said. “Two years ago, I don’t think I would have believed I was supposed to make it. That may have been the biggest difference.”

And not even a few roars ahead of him as Woods tried to mount a charge slowed his assault at East Lake. The knockout came with a 25-foot birdie putt on the 11th, followed by a 30-footer for birdie on the 12th.

“He had a little spurt on the back nine that basically iced it,” Woods said. “We’re sitting there on the periphery, trying to play ourselves back in it somehow, and it looked like he wasn’t going to make a mistake.”

Woods had three birdies in a four-hole stretch to give himself a chance, but the best he could do was a 69 to finish at 11-under 269. Woods earned $715,000 and finished his six-win, two-major year with $10.6 million.

Scott Verplank shot 69 and was third at 271.

Retief Goosen, trying to become the first back-to-back winner of the Tour Championship, never did find his swing and bogeyed four of the first five holes on the back nine, sending him to a 74.

Goosen had seen enough of Bryant the previous two days to realize his game was suited perfectly for the course. The only question was how he would handle the pressure of having a three-shot lead against a two-time U.S. Open champion, with a double Grand Slam winner in Woods another shot behind.

The answer was quick and decisive.

Bryant’s first approach shot – from the fairway, of course – skipped by the cup and stopped 6 feet away for birdie. His tee shot on the par-3 second came up 4 feet short for another birdie.

“Last night laying in bed, I really pictured myself getting off to a really hot start,” Bryant said. “I felt like if I could do that, I’d have a really good chance to win. And luckily, that’s what happened.”

Bryant, who didn’t win on the PGA Tour until last year in the Texas Open, added two big trophies this year – the Memorial in June, and the season-ending Tour Championship for the top 30 on the money list.

“This exceeds my expectations,” he said. “I didn’t think I could make it into the Tour Championship, and I certainly didn’t think I could win the Tour Championship. It’s a really cool feeling, and it’s one I’m going to relish for a long, long time.”

It has been a journey unlike any other in this All-Star game, for few of these players have ever spent so much time in the minor leagues, or had to recover from so many setbacks.

Bryant had rotator cuff surgery in 1992, bounced around the mini-tours, made a half-dozen trips to Q-school and had surgery on both elbows until he finally broke through at the Texas Open last year.

And only after he won at East Lake did he reveal his left knee has been bothering him all year and that he is scheduled to have surgery Tuesday to clean it up.

“Just feels like the thing to do,” Bryant said with a smile. “I haven’t had surgery in a while.”

The recovery should only take a month, enough time for Bryant to start reaping the rewards from a phenomenal season. He is eligible for all four majors for the first time. He can play any PGA Tour event he wants next year, except for the Tour Championship.

“Every week I feel like I belong more and more where I am,” Bryant said. “I belong on the same Tour. I certainly don’t put myself in the same category as Retief and Vijay (Singh) and Davis Love and Tiger Woods. These guys are the elite players in the world.

“But I have found out that if I’m on top of my game under the right conditions,” he added, “I definitely can compete with these guys.”

The son of a pastor, he is humble about his game to a fault. Bryant says it took longer than usual for him to succeed because he was afraid to fail, and vowed this week not to be intimidated by his surroundings. On this occasion, he had Goosen next to him and Woods in front of him.

And in the end, he was miles ahead.

AP-ES-11-06-05 1845EST

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