Jonathan Byrd hit one of the greatest shots hardly anyone saw, himself included.
In the gloaming of Las Vegas, the last Byrd could see was his ball drawing toward the flag on the 204-yard 17th hole at the TPC Summerlin in a three-man playoff. What followed were cheers, the kind usually heard Thursday morning on an empty golf course.
“I didn’t see it, so I didn’t know I made it,” Byrd said Tuesday. “There was hardly anybody at the green. All the fans were behind us on the hill, or back on the 18th green.”
The size of the crowd – in Las Vegas or in front of a TV – doesn’t minimize the magnificence of the finish. It was the first time in PGA Tour history that a sudden-death playoff had been decided by a hole-in-one.
That it happened during the Fall Series makes it no less special.
Only a week earlier, Rocco Mediate played before a less-than-full house at CordeValle and produced his own amazing finish. He made an eagle with a full swing for the fourth straight day, this one a wedge on the 17th hole, that led to victory in the Frys.com Open.
Either makes a strong candidate for shot of the year on the PGA Tour.
The more likely selection will be Phil Mickelson hitting a 6-iron through a gap in the pine trees on the 13th hole at Augusta National, over Rae’s Creek to about 5 feet. Never mind that he missed the eagle putt. It sent him to a green jacket, which trumps a photo op with Justin Timberlake just about every time.
“Mine was the most dramatic to win a tournament a hole-in-one, something that had never been done,” Byrd said when asked to pick between the two shots. “But it’s a different deal trying to win a major. I would say in the whole scheme of golf, it’s more meaningful to hit a shot like he did through the trees … to win a major.”
It’s not like Byrd’s shot will have an asterisk.
That’s a word that first came up when Tiger Woods didn’t play the last two majors of 2008, and one that Charles Howell III brought up as the Fall Series was gaining traction at Sea Island this month.
Some look at this time of the year as irrelevant to everyone except the players trying to keep their jobs.
The fields are not as strong. The TV networks are done for the year except for the Chevron World Challenge that Woods hosts in December. The galleries are small enough to be counted.
It wasn’t much different before there was such a thing as the FedEx Cup or the Fall Series. Woods didn’t play then, either, except for the World Golf Championship that was held somewhere between the old 84 Lumber Classic and Greensboro.
There has always been different tiers of the tour, and that hasn’t changed.
“You’ve got the top 50 world-ranked guys playing a certain schedule, guys who have somewhat of a full schedule and rookies playing a limited schedule with limited purse sizes, who have a little tougher road to keeping their card,” Byrd said.
The schedule one keeps is directly related to the scores he shoots. That hasn’t changed, either.
Byrd had to rally in the closing holes to get into the three-man playoff, and the emotions he faced felt similar to when he had the lead on the back nine at the Memorial last year.
“Every tournament has a different feel to it based on how many fans are out there, whether it’s a hometown tournament,” Byrd said. “The Fall Series is not going to draw the same crowd as Memorial. For me as a player, I didn’t feel different. It was the same emotion as Memorial. With not as many people out there, it has a different vibe.”
Keep in mind, these are not glorified Nationwide Tour stops. For the second straight year, 12 players at the Tour Championship have played at least once in the Fall Series. That’s a little less than what tour officials anticipated when the FedEx Cup began, and it’s understandable in a Ryder Cup year.
The field for the McGladrey Classic, a boutique tournament held at tony Sea Island, was stronger than three tournaments where the winners received an automatic invitation to the Masters.
“Somehow they got classified as an invisible asterisk besides them,” Howell said of the Fall Series. “If you win some of these tournaments, you should get in the Masters.”
The emphasis on the Fall Series is trying to finish in the top 125 to keep a tour card, get into the top 70 to qualify for some of the elite invitationals (such as Bay Hill) or to get into the top 30 and earn a trip to the Masters. Others simply like to play, for that’s what they do. And for some, it’s a time to test new equipment or work on their swings.
That doesn’t make the competition – or some of the shots – less compelling than it was in February or July.
Sea Island and CordeValle stack up nicely with most courses on consecutive weeks during the “regular season.” The TPC Summerlin offers three eagle opportunities on a four-hole stretch on the back nine. That’s fun.
Byrd, meanwhile, didn’t see his historic ace until he got back to his hotel room to shower before his red-eye flight home to Sea Island in Georgia. His caddie pulled up the replay on his cell phone. They gave each other high-fives.
Since then, Byrd’s cell phone has filled up with voicemail from friends telling him it was the greatest shot to end a tournament. So at least someone was watching.