KAPALUA, Hawaii – Only the PGA Tour winners from the previous year are invited to Kapalua to begin the season at the Tournament of Champions. That wasn’t enough for Jonathan Byrd.
Sitting in front of his locker early in the week, he looked around the room at some of the names on the gold plates attached to each locker, which included the tournament they won to get there. For some reason, Byrd began to feel envious.
Graeme McDowell had the U.S. Open. Ernie Els won at Bay Hill and Doral. Tim Clark, winner of The Players Championship. There were three titles for Jim Furyk, including the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup.
Byrd won a Fall Series event in Las Vegas, albeit with a shot like no other. He became the first player to win a PGA Tour event in a playoff by making a hole-in-one, with a 3-iron in conditions so dark he didn’t see it go in.
He had won four times in his nine years on tour, and at one point, Byrd had the most wins of any active American under 30. But those victories either came late in the year (Buick Challenge), opposite a major (B.C. Open) or the week before a major (John Deere Classic) or in the Fall Series, when the top players were somewhere else.
“You start to get envious, and all of a sudden, you’re not as content with your win,” Byrd said. “I told my wife that one night, and I said, ‘I’ve got to let that go.’ My identity is not what tournaments I win. It’s a lot more than that.”
Byrd prefers to be identified by his faith, which helped to keep his spirits up last year when his game was in such a funk that he missed six consecutive cuts in the late spring and thought he might lose his tour card until his surprise win in Las Vegas. His game has never been inadequate. Byrd has an efficient swing, and his power is more than adequate.
And if that’s not enough, he has a win that guarantees him a locker at Kapalua next year.
He was around the lead all week in the Tournament of Champions, and was strong to the very end. Against a winners-only field, he never trailed in the final round Sunday, closed with a 6-under 67 and won on the second hole of a playoff when Robert Garrigus three-putted from 40 feet, missing a 3-foot putt.
“It’s definitely the biggest tournament I’ve ever won,” Byrd said. “It’s a small field. I’ve won some great tournaments, but I would think this is probably the best field that I’ve won against in my career. So this is definitely a springboard for me.”
He played in the final group with Stricker, a nine-time winner who is No. 6 in the world. He withstood a charge from McDowell, playing as though last year never ended by matching the Plantation course record with an 11-under 62 to finish one shot out of a playoff.
The question is where Byrd goes from here.
As well as he played all week, it’s a wonder Byrd hasn’t won more often and been a regular in the top 50 in the world. His fifth career victory moved him to No. 58.
“I’ve thought that. It’s a valid point,” he said. “I don’t know what it is, the reason why you get held back. I feel like I should be doing better. The best thing I’m doing in my game right now is simplifying things. I complicate things way too much, trying to be perfect, and that’s been my biggest barrier over my career.”
Here’s how simple he wants to keep it for 2011.
Byrd wrote down three goals for the year – improve his putting inside 5 feet, become more efficient with his wedge play and drive better. Those three areas were key for him at Kapalua.
Then, there are little things that seemed to have worked.
After missing the cut in the Canadian Open, Byrd went out to play with his caddie and decided not to wear a glove. It gave him a slightly better feel with the club in his hand, and he even put a waggle into his pre-shot routine.
“I really feel like that’s one thing that has helped me have a little more feel in my game,” he said.
And then there’s his attitude.
Byrd lasted only one playoff event last year, and he started the Fall Series outside the top 125 on the money list. He was on the cusp of losing his card until a solid week in Mississippi, then his victory in Vegas.
“You get to a point where you might lose your card, which is where I was last year, and it forces you to find a way to play well,” he said.
Beyond the quality of the field he beat, Byrd’s latest victory was important for other reasons.
He earned an automatic invitation to the Masters, which he has played only three times. Because it was his second PGA Tour win since last summer, he is exempt for the U.S. Open.
Byrd will get into the Bridgestone Invitational, a WGC event he has not played since 2003, and at No. 58 in the world, he at least gave himself a chance to play in the Match Play Championship.
Until this year, he had never won before July.
“I don’t know. I’ve got to call Mo Pickens, figure out what I should be thinking now,” Byrd said with a laugh, referring to his mental coach at Sea Island in Georgia. “I guess the best thing is just not change anything. I’m just going to keep playing.”