It had been 10 years since Jim Furyk won the season-opening Tournament of Champions, and Byrd reached the same conclusion as most everyone else. Players like Stuart Appleby and Geoff Ogilvy, who combined for five of those wins, had been playing deep into the previous season in Australia. That or the fact Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson stopped coming to Maui.
“I said it was about time for an American to win,” Byrd said. “I just didn’t know it would be me. But I’ll take it.”
Perhaps it was no coincidence that a sudden-death playoff on Sunday came down to Byrd and Robert Garrigus, who won the last two tournaments on the PGA Tour schedule.
Garrigus was in danger of losing his card until winning Disney. In the previous domestic event, Byrd won a three-man playoff in Las Vegas by making an ace in near darkness for perhaps the most stunning win on tour all year.
“There’s definitely some momentum,” Byrd said. “I spoke earlier in the week about how Australians come in here, their game is ready and they come sharp and come hungry and they play well here. And maybe Robert and I, just getting a taste of victory at the end of last year, was enough for us to ride it into this week.”
The way it ended? Not many saw that coming.
Byrd and Garrigus each closed with a 6-under 67 to finish on 24-under 268, and both had a chance to win in regulation.
Garrigus, in the second-to-last group, hit what he described as a “smoke, bullet draw” with a 5-wood to 12 feet on the par-5 18th, and his eagle putt narrowly missed. Byrd couldn’t reach the green against the Kona wind, hit a weak wedge to 18 feet and his birdie putt for the win stopped short of the cup.
Garrigus had the advantage with his length – he has led the PGA Tour in driving distance the last two years. That didn’t help him on the 18th in the playoff, but did on the second extra hole – No. 1, which plays 528 yards downhill but into the breeze.
Garrigus nailed it. Byrd didn’t.
Byrd had a 3-iron left to reach the green. Garrigus had a 9-iron from the rough just beyond the end of the fairway.
It all changed from there.
Both left their shots some below the hole, a fast putt because it goes with the grain growing toward the Pacific. From 50 feet, Byrd played it perfectly, and the ball caught the top part of the cup and left him a tap-in par. Garrigus hit his a little firm and had 3 feet left.
He missed it.
“I just hit that putt too hard,” Garrigus said. “I was trying to take all the break out of it, played straight and I pushed it a centimeter and it hit that lip and didn’t go in.”
Garrigus might as well be called “gregarious.”
Few had a better time on the Plantation Course at Kapalua, whether he was bombing drives, showing off his improved wedge game or hitting putts with his 28-inch putter, in which he stoops and holds a club that barely reaches his knees.
Even by winning in a fashion that can be uncomfortable – not his heroics, but another’s misfortunes – Byrd couldn’t help but notice.
“What a great display of sportsmanship,” Byrd said. “He’s smiling in the playoff, he was probably smiling when he doubled the first hole yesterday, and he was smiling after he missed that putt. My hat’s off to him.”
Pity that the playoff reached a second hole, which was No. 1. Garrigus took double bogey on Saturday, and he made a bogey on Sunday from a fairway bunker.
Then again, the 18th hole wasn’t terribly friendly to Graeme McDowell.
Someone forgot to tell the U.S. Open champion that 2010 is over, for the man from Northern Ireland showed he wasn’t quite ready to leave a dream season. Even though he started the final round six shots back, McDowell played as though he had something to prove.
He made 11 birdies through 16 holes and suddenly was atop the leaderboard, although others still had birdie holes ahead of them. McDowell had a 6-foot birdie putt on the final hole that he hit too hard. If he had made it, McDowell would have been in the playoff.
He had to settle for a 62, matching the Plantation Course record set by K.J. Choi in the third round of 2003. Most frustrating was that he didn’t birdie the 18th hole all week.
“I never looked at the leaderboard,” McDowell said. “I knew the guys were going to go low. I just kept my head down. When I birdied, 14, 14, 15, 16 … I said, ‘Hold on.’
“It was just a fun day out there. This golf course is just ‘green light’ all day.”
Byrd was standing on the edge of the first green as Garrigus faced his 40-foot birdie putt for the win, which would have been unlikely. As Garrigus stood over his 3-footer for par, Byrd already was thinking about his next shot.
And then it was over.
For Byrd, his fifth career victory was by far the biggest. He has never won before July, and this has caused him to reconsider the season. He’s headed to the Masters and U.S. Open with this win. He’ll get in at least one World Golf Championship, maybe all of them.
And to think that three months ago, he thought he might lose his card.
“Pretty overwhelmed,” he said.