Wesley finishes fifth at the first stage of Q-School at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Georgia, to successfully complete his first step toward the Web.com Tour.
The siblings from small-town South Carolina sailed on the emerald waters around Richard Branson’s private island, zip-lined through palm trees and played pool with the famous British billionaire. A year earlier, the Bryan brothers were broke and playing in golf’s minor leagues. Now they were hanging out with the eccentric Virgin founder at his exclusive retreat in the British Virgin Islands.
The Bryans earned the invitation because of a skill they’d inadvertently discovered in early 2014. Turns out Wesley Bryan, always crafty with a wedge in his hand, was pretty good at hitting a golf ball out of mid-air. That specialty, combined with a savvy showmanship seasoned with Southern accents, helped Wesley and his older brother, George IV, quickly gain attention in a sport seeking unconventional ways to appeal to new audiences.
The Bryans had dreamt of winning majors at St. Andrews and Pebble Beach; instead, they were invited to those hallowed grounds to perform as the Bryan Bros, the duo whose videos have been viewed millions of times on YouTube. It’s the reason they were at Branson’s Necker Island, except actor Chevy Chase was the emcee of this show in August 2015.
Wesley’s most impressive trick wasn’t made for social media, though. He performed it on the Web.com Tour. Wesley, 26, had never competed in a PGA TOUR-sanctioned tournament before 2016. He needed just 13 starts as a Web.com Tour rookie to win three times and earn an immediate promotion to the PGA TOUR.
That success overshadows even the Bryan Bros’ most entertaining video.
“I didn’t dream of being a trick shot artist on YouTube,” Wesley says. “I wanted to be a PGA TOUR player.”
The Bryans didn’t stumble across a golf club one day and wonder how they could use this foreign implement to achieve Internet fame. They’ve been on a golf course since they started following their father to work as toddlers.
Their upbringing contributed to their success on the course and on social media.
Their father, George III, is a golf instructor who turned the family’s backyard into a golf academy. Growing up with uninhibited access to a practice facility allowed them to exercise their creativity. They had daily competitions, challenging each other with any shot their minds could conjure. The brothers’ energetic, extroverted nature, which they inherited from George III, made them natural-born entertainers.
“I would never be shocked if you said the Bryan brothers wouldn’t take the road most traveled,” says Bill McDonald, their coach at the University of South Carolina. “They’ve always sort of done it their own way.”
This is their tale.
The Bryans weren’t impressed.
They saw the video of one teenager chipping a ball to his friend, who used a driver to strike it out of mid-air. The shot was spreading on social media and some of the most-trafficked websites in sports. Approximately 100 balls lay a few feet in front of the boys, testifying to their failed attempts.
“Curiosity got the best of George and I, and we felt like we needed to go out there and try it,” Wesley says.
The Bryan Bros were born when Wesley made contact after just a couple attempts. About a thousand people watched their first video in March 2014, which was filmed in the same backyard practice facility where they’d spent so many hours honing their golf skills. It was more than page views that motivated the Bryans to continue filming videos, though.
“We were bored and broke,” George IV recalls.
He’d been playing pro golf for nearly four years, while Wesley was about 18 months into his pro career. Neither player had earned status on a PGA TOUR-sanctioned circuit, and just breaking even is difficult to do on golf’s minor leagues.
George IV lived with his parents to save money for tournament entry fees, but he was running low on funds by late 2013. He skipped that year’s Q-School because he couldn’t come up with the four-figure entry fee.
He was giving golf lessons and caddying when the Bryan Bros began. Wesley is two years younger, but had a wife and mortgage to think about.
Wesley and Elizabeth were married in August 2012, shortly after graduating from the University of South Carolina. He played the mini-tours while she worked as a medical assistant. They lived in a studio apartment above a garage and became proficient penny-pinchers with coupons.
They bought a home in Augusta, Georgia, a few months after the Bryan Bros began. Elizabeth was starting classes in the Master of Physician’s Assistant program at Augusta University. Wesley was turning a slight profit in small professional events, but he also caddied occasionally at swanky Sage Valley Golf Club in nearby Graniteville, South Carolina, to make some extra cash. Elizabeth’s student loans helped to pay their mortgage.
“We knew that God had been faithful and provided for us in the past,” Wesley says, “but at the time we were basically paying debt with debt, and it was not a great situation to be in.”
The Bryan Bros’ second video received even more attention after Rickie Fowler, a friend since their amateur golf days, retweeted it. Within two months, ESPN had featured one of the Bryans’ videos on its website. The brothers began to see the videos as a way to gain the attention in the golf industry that could help them continue to compete professionally.
Trick shots aren’t a new phenomenon. Joe Kirkwood, an Australian pro who won 13 times on TOUR, performed them in barnstorming exhibitions with Walter Hagen in the 1920s. The Bryans didn’t need to hop on a train to perform for new audiences, though. Social media served as a catalyst for their growth. Their light-hearted, untraditional fare was exactly what the golf industry was seeking in its search for younger fans.
The game has long focused on reaching younger audiences, but the quest intensified once it became apparent Tiger Woods wouldn’t win forever. Task forces and industry initiatives were created to find new fans. Millennials, the 18- to 34-year-olds whom marketers obsess over, were the No. 1 target.
We didn’t know what we were doing. We outsourced one of the videos to a seventh-grader.
This demographic makes up a quarter of the golfing population, according to a 2015 report from the National Golf Foundation, but they “need more than just the traditional game to satisfy their broader social interests. Millennials crave adventure, social interaction, entertainment and share-worthy experience.”
Enter the Bryan Bros, who posted their first videos on YouTube and quickly followed with Twitter and Instagram accounts.
What they lacked in technical experience, they made up for with outsized celebrations, flamboyant costumes and creative camera angles to add spice to Wesley’s signature shot.
“We didn’t know what we were doing,” George IV admits. “We outsourced one of the videos to a seventh-grader.”
The Bryans’ personalities helped their venture continue to grow after those initial videos, says Chad Coleman, Callaway Golf’s social media manager. The company has invested heavily in creating content for a younger audience, which is why it partnered with the Bryans in early 2015.
“They’re two likable guys. It’s easy to root for them,” says Coleman, who caddied for Wesley in his win at this year’s El Bosque Mexico Championship on the Web.com Tour. “They’re cool, fun, young guys who people can instantly relate with.”
By September 2014, the Bryans had released their first video in partnership with GoPro, the company that makes those small cameras made famous in the extreme sports world. That video garnered more than 1.5 million views.
Things were progressing rapidly for the duo that started filming with an iPhone in their parents’ backyard.
”Is this heaven?”
“No, it’s Chapin, South Carolina.”
Like Ray Kinsella’s Iowa farm in “Field of Dreams”, the Bryan family’s property is a shrine to the sport that has gripped its patriarch.
Auditory hallucinations didn’t lead George III to build a golf training facility on his 10 acres, though. He wanted somewhere he could spread the gospel of the game that’s captivated him since he was a teenager. Having three children who shared his passion was an added incentive to move the family out of its comfortable suburban home and into the South Carolina countryside.
George III and his high-school sweetheart Valerie purchased the 10 acres on Vernon Church Road in 2005. George III had dreamt for years of owning a place where he could hit balls steps from his back door. Valerie opposed the idea when he brought it up in 1999.
“When we dropped it, it dropped like a lead weight,” George III says about those early discussions. “She was the one who brought it back up.”
That happened about a half-dozen years later at the Bryans’ kitchen table. They found their future home about an hour after starting the search, a fact that George III attributes to nothing less than divine intervention. Valerie was the one who spotted the small sign advertising “10 Acres. For Sale By Owner.” They pulled over to grab a flyer from the front of the property. The owner, wary of trespassers, threatened to shoot if the Bryans advanced any farther up the 100-yard driveway. They had a contract less than two weeks later, though.
Chapin is a town of approximately 1,500 people located about 30 minutes outside Columbia, the state’s capital and the home of the University of South Carolina. Affluent subdivisions dot this rural town. White-collar professionals commute to the state capital from Chapin, while others own vacation homes at nearby Lake Murray, which was the world’s largest power reservoir when it opened in 1930.
A visitor passes corn fields, a well repair shop and the Woodsmoke Family Campground en route to the George Bryan Golf Academy.
George III says the purchase and development of the property was “a very big risk.” It came with its sacrifices, too. The 1,800-square-foot home is much smaller than the Bryans’ previous residence. The 8-foot-high ceilings and small windows make it feel even tinier, while the brick walls exaggerate the outdoor temperature. Valerie Bryan compares the home, which she and George III still live in, to a fortress.
She used to disdain golf because of her husband’s admittedly selfish devotion to it. But the game became a unifying force for the family as the children’s dedication continued to increase.
George IV was South Carolina’s top junior golfer the same year the family moved to Chapin. Wesley, a high-school freshman, was one of the best players in the state, too (both brothers made it to the Round of 32 at that year’s U.S. Junior Amateur). Mary Chandler, four years younger than Wesley, played at College of Charleston, graduating earlier this year.
“It was definitely a risk,” Wesley says about the family’s move. “Looking back at it, the reason he did it was just to give me and George and Mary Chandler a better chance to succeed.”
Hundreds of trees had to be cleared from the property and about six acres of sod were laid. The boys helped their father lay sod, rake rocks and build the artificial greens.
George III still gets some of his exercise by clearing trees on the land with an ax. He’s the academy’s chief greenkeeper; two riding lawn-mowers sit under an overhang next to the family’s driveway.
The academy’s centerpiece is a 20-foot-tall building containing two indoor hitting bays. Visitors can scrutinize their swings with slow-motion video and compare them to the world’s greatest players. The accomplishments of the academy’s students are detailed in multi-colored markers on the dozen or so whiteboards that hang on the walls. Some of the various victories and awards were chronicled nearly a decade ago but are still easily legible. Like prehistoric cave drawings, they seem likely to survive for centuries, giving future generations details of the people who inhabited this space.
The structure also includes a breezeway that doubles as a covered, outdoor hitting bay, and an indoor putting room. The fact that the building is 3,200 square feet, or almost twice the size of the family’s residence, testifies to golf’s place in the Bryan family.
That building, which George Bryan III had built when he bought the property, sits in front of the gravel parking lot that visitors pull into when they turn at the small, yellow sign that simply says “Golf” in green letters.
George III doesn’t want his students spending all their time under the building’s roof, obsessing over swing technique, though. The remainder of the property encourages more free-form training.
An artificial putting green sits about 50 yards from the hitting bays. The green is firm and fast, rolling about 13 on the Stimpmeter. The Bermudagrass around it is intentionally shaggy and unkempt. George III isn’t ashamed of brown spots or sandy areas. He isn’t trying to replicate Augusta National. Perfect lies make things too easy, he says. Students must get creative to stop shots from the thick grass on that small, firm putting surface.
Just left of the building, two narrow gaps form a fork in the trees. One of those openings was created for the power lines that run through the yard, while the other was made by George III. Players learn how to curve their tee shots by squeezing them down these small runways.
“It’s a big confidence booster knowing that you can hit a driver in a 10-yard area,” says George IV.
The favorite practice area of George III’s two sons is located behind the house, about 200 yards from the teeing areas. The wedge range is a series of sand targets intended to help players hone their shots from less than 120 yards.
This practice facility is the product of George III’s enthusiastic belief in the benefits of golf. Junior golfers have always been his academy’s largest clientele. He’s an energetic spokesperson for the game.
George III became obsessed with golf in his senior year of high school. He started working 12-hour shifts at a Shell station to pay for some of his first lessons and started a small lawn-care business to feed his addiction. He was good enough to earn a spot on the University of South Carolina’s varsity golf team in the second semester of his second year at the school.
“I became addicted,” George Bryan III says. “I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t study.”
He didn’t compete in a tournament for the Gamecocks but learned from watching teammates Steven Liebler, Fred Wadsworth and Webb Heintzelman, all of whom went on to play the PGA TOUR. George graduated in 1984 and tried his hand in professional golf until shortly before George IV was born in January 1988. He apprenticed at Timberlake Country Club in Chapin before briefly taking another shot at pro golf. He began working in 1992 as the director of golf for two courses.
He still played in local tournaments, though, and was good enough to qualify for the PGA Championship in 1999 and the RBC Heritage in 2004. He also competed in six Web.com Tour events.
The move to Chapin was about his children’s success, though.
“I knew that the opportunity was right in front of me,” Wesley says, “and if I just worked hard, as available as it was, I knew that I could get a whole lot better.”
Wesley was hitting improbable shots well before millions of people were watching him hit golf balls out of mid-air. He was known for pulling off high-risk shots from the trees and pitches with enough backspin to make heads spin. Watching him play in college often meant more than one trip into the high grass to help him find his ball.
“(George III) and I used to laugh about it. We’d have briars and little stickers all over our legs from looking for his golf ball,” says McDonald, the South Carolina coach. “He’d somehow go in there, you’d hear a bunch of thrashing around and next thing you know, a ball comes flying out toward the fairway and he’s figured out a way to make par.”
Wesley’s ability to recover taught him to recognize opportunity in the midst of difficulty. That came in handy in college, when he faced situations that may have led others to lose their zeal for the game, including a triple-digit score.
Wesley honed his scrambling skills from his earliest days in the game, during long hours at his father’s workplace.
George III was wary of starting his sons in the game that had at times consumed too much of his attention and energy. His mother Barbara, who lived with the Bryans during the final years of her life, wanted her eldest grandson to watch his father at work, though. She started taking George IV to the driving range to watch George III give lessons.
It wasn’t long before George IV was waking up in time to follow his father to work. He started rising around 6 a.m. when he was 5 years old, earning the nickname “rooster child.”
Wesley was so young that his junior set of T-Rex clubs was still too big for him. He had difficulty getting the ball airborne, but the game’s shortest shots provided positive affirmation. Ironically, he wished at this age that his wayward tee shots could reach the trees. He hit the ball so short that his mishits didn’t travel far enough off-line to get into trouble.
The competition between the two brothers was constant. George IV was more reserved that his younger brother, who could be quick with a sarcastic quip. Wesley remembers one wrestling match that ended with a broken hand. George III jokes that the family became good friends with an orthopedist.
While the brothers were rivals, they also were practice companions. They’d squeeze in sessions before school and use the lights to pull all-nighters. George IV set the standard for his younger brother.
“He was always better than me and stronger than me and hitting the ball farther than me, so it gave me something to chase after,” Wesley says. “He always had a really good work ethic, so that’s where I learned my work ethic from.”
The sun set behind the wedge range, making it an idyllic setting for late-afternoon practice sessions. Similar to his earliest days, Wesley enjoyed improving on his strength. He loved getting creative with his wedge shots, experimenting with different trajectories and shot shapes.
The brothers also loved the firm chipping green in front of their father’s teaching building. They had so many competitions there that they named the holes. They also challenged each other by curving shots through the trees and over the house. There are few rules when the practice facility is your family’s property.
The backyard was their blank canvas.
“I could hear them cackling, and I knew at that point they were up to something no good, banking shots off the side of the house and around the car,” Valerie says. “And at night they'd turn the lights on, and I could hear balls rattling up through the trees, the occasional ball landing on the roof. They were very creative with some of their shots”
George IV didn’t venture far from home when it came time to pick a college. He chose his father’s alma mater. The distance was enough to soften some of the sharp edges on the brothers’ relationship. The rivalry became less intense while their friendship deepened.
Wesley had set his sights on in-state rival Clemson, which had won the 2003 NCAA title and produced PGA TOUR winners such as Lucas Glover, Jonathan Byrd and D.J. Trahan. His decision changed when George IV became a Gamecock, though.
George IV, a three-time All-American in college, moved back onto campus for his junior season so that he could reside with his younger brother. They brought their unique practice habits to school, as well.
“They pushed each other pretty hard,” McDonald says. “They would run around our practice facility and they’re hitting shots out of pine straw and crazy slopes. I’m asked a lot about their trick shots, but some of the best shots I’ve seen them hit were some of the crazy wedge shots they would hit around our practice facility. They both have incredible hand-eye coordination.”
I teach a lot of people, and everybody freaks out at a bad swing, and (Wesley) just doesn't do it.
A disconcerting trend started to appear early in Wesley’s career, though. He’d play well in the summer, when golf was his sole focus, but his game would deteriorate during the school year. There were times he considered turning pro early so he could focus full-time on golf, but he graduated with a degree in retail in 2012.
“I won a tournament in my first semester, and I won a tournament my last semester,” Wesley says. “In between, there was not very good stuff that happened on the golf course.”
Wesley’s sophomore season saw an agonizing end.
The top five teams in the 2010 NCAA regional at Yale Golf Course in New Haven, Connecticut, would advance to the NCAA Championship. South Carolina made a spirited rally on the final day. Wesley came to his final hole, the par-3 ninth, needing just a double bogey for the team to advance. His tee shot found the hazard, but the real trouble started when he tried to hack it out. His sextuple bogey ended the team’s season, and his older brother’s career.
Wesley was still a preseason All-American a few months later but was having trouble keeping his tee shots in play. It hit rock bottom at Kiawah Island’s Oyster Point, a course wrought with hazards where penalty strokes could add up quickly. Wesley shot 101.
“I knew there was some good in there somewhere. It was just hard to believe it when I was looking at some of the scores that I was shooting,” Wesley says. “It taught me a lot about perseverance and fighting through it.”
George III learned something about his son that day, too. He remembers a 230-yard shot that Wesley tried to thread between a “V” in one of the trees. A college golf team’s score is the sum of the four best scores from the team’s five players, and Wesley was already well over par for the day. Instead of trying to protect himself from further embarrassment, he wanted to take on the challenge of a difficult shot.
“I teach a lot of people, and everybody freaks out at a bad swing, and he just doesn't do it,” George III says. “His short-term memory control has always been spectacular.”
Wesley used the waning daylight after the round to hit balls.
“I would’ve wanted to stick my head in a hornet’s nest,” McDonald says. “I never really felt like he lost his love for the game. It almost sometimes seemed fake, but he still seemed confident about his game no matter what he was shooting.”
Wesley’s perseverance would pay off in his pro career, as well.
The PGA Merchandise Show in January 2015 confirmed that the Bryan Bros’ antics were being watched by more than young kids with a YouTube addiction.
Companies wanted to partner with them, and soon they were flying to foreign countries to perform their act. They appeared on Golf Channel’s “Big Break” show, performed at Baltusrol and St. Andrews and co-starred with Rory McIlroy. Wesley said they traveled at least once per month in 2015, spending about 70 days on the road.
The demands meant less time to play pro tournaments. He estimates he played in three or four events in 2015, but he also was able to practice at the private facility owned by Augusta University, which had won the 2010 and 2011 NCAA titles. High-quality range balls and competition with the college kids helped him improve.
Wesley may have played fewer tournaments last year, but he found better fortune in the year’s most important event: the Web.com Tour Qualifying Tournament, otherwise known as Q-School.
That event, played out in four stages over the fall, determines a player’s fate for the following year. Thousands of players enter; the top 45 and ties are the only ones who leave the final stage with guaranteed starts on the Web.com Tour, the only direct route to the PGA TOUR. Most of the players who fail to make the final stage must return to golf’s minor leagues.
Wesley’s pro career had followed a similar pattern to his college days. His game peaked in the summer, but he struggled in the fall. He fell short in his first three Q-School attempts.
He felt fresher for last year’s Q-School, though. Hitting balls out of mid-air had increased his confidence off the tee. If he could hit a moving ball reasonably straight, why couldn’t he do the same when it was sitting still, perched above the ground?
George IV saw a change in his brother’s demeanor on the course, too. Wesley was always the more outgoing one, quicker with a joke or sly remark, but he started taking the game more seriously once he started playing for money. That had a negative impact on his game. Hitting trick shots gave Wesley a break from the grind of pro golf and helped him get back to his fun-loving ways.
“That was the Wesley I knew,” George IV says.
The Bryan Bros’ success also increased Wesley’s desire to gain attention for his play, not his YouTube performances. “Wesley Bryan, PGA TOUR player” sounds a lot better than “Wesley Bryan, Internet sensation.” He put in the extra practice last summer to ensure that would happen.
“That’s kind of when I put my head down and went to work,” Wesley says.
With George IV on the bag, Wesley finished ninth at the final stage of last year’s Q-School to secure good status for the 2016 season. George IV still has his own playing aspirations, but he started the season as his younger brother’s caddie. Wesley finished seventh in his Web.com Tour debut, at the Panama Claro Championship.
Two starts later, he was one stroke off the lead entering the final round of the Chitimacha Louisiana Open presented by NACHER. Wesley, who’d won once on the mini-tours, was surprisingly calm in the final round. Three back-nine birdies, including one on 17, led to a one-shot win.
Wesley won again three starts later, at the El Bosque Mexico Championship presented by INNOVA, to ensure he would earn PGA TOUR status for the 2016-17 season.
“I was almost too nervous to take the club back,” Wesley says.
Hitting a golf ball out of mid-air is easy compared to clinching your first TOUR card and fulfilling a childhood dream.
Wesley didn’t have to wait until October to become a PGA TOUR member, though. His third victory of the year – in just his 13th start – earned him an immediate promotion. He was just the 11th player since 1997, when the three-win promotion was instituted, to accomplish the feat.
He won the Digital Ally Open in Overland Park, Kansas, on Aug. 7 by holing a 3-foot birdie putt on the second hole of a three-man playoff. The next morning, Wesley and Elizabeth made the five-hour drive to Silvis, Illinois, for the John Deere Classic, where Wesley would make his debut as a PGA TOUR member. The drive through rural towns and cornfields in America’s heartland gave the Bryans the perfect setting to reflect on how much had changed in just a few years.
“My wife was working full-time, basically, and I was playing mini-tours and we were living over someone’s garage, in a studio apartment,” Wesley said. “Then a lot of hard work and a couple years later, we finally got the Web.com Tour card and here we are.”
The Deere was a fitting place for his debut. Wesley had been communicating over Twitter with the John Deere’s tournament director, Clair Peterson, about receiving a sponsor exemption, but that conversation was no longer necessary. Wesley wouldn’t have to rely on trick shots or social-media savvy to get in the tournament.
He’d earned his spot with his play. Just as he’d always dreamt.