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Jonathan Byrd finds strength in memory of father

LEMONT, Ill. – Jonathan Byrd was cruising along, 4 under through 13 holes, his name painted atop a showstopper leaderboard and a relaxed smile etched into an expressive face.

It was precisely the moment things went sideways at Cog Hill’s Dubsdread Course. They always do.
What made this particular speed bump outside the norm was Byrd’s square-shouldered reaction to bogeys at Nos. 5 and 6 (he started his round on No. 10). Where the old “Jay Bird” would have inwardly fumed, the new guy lifted his ball from the hole and headed to the next tee.

Sports psychologist call it “fumble and forget,” and one of the Tour’s most intense competitors has learned over an emotional few months that it’s just life. A missed putt here, a pulled approach there, it's little picture stuff for a son who walked away from the Tour for six weeks to be by his ailing father’s side to the end.

But then Jim Byrd was not your prototypical golf dad.
Jonathan Byrd BMW Championship
Jonathan Byrd plays a shot during the opening round of the BMW Championship. (Getty Images)

“It was not your normal father-son relationship,” said Mac Barnhardt, Byrd’s friend and manager with Crown Sports. “It was total support, very positive. He wanted Jonathan to play golf because Jonathan enjoyed it. Not because he wanted it.”

On July 7, 2009, Jim Byrd lost his battle with brain cancer that began in the fall of 2007 when he collapsed during a Clemson football game. Jonathan Byrd was there – and had been since the first week of June when he tied for third at the Memorial, packed his clubs away and decided that golf would always be there, his father would not.

When asked about his father on Thursday under cloudless Chicago skies, the smile quickly returned to Byrd’s face.

“I have peace because I had a lot of good time with him at the end,” Byrd said.

Byrd was by his father’s bed in Columbia, S.C. every day for nearly six weeks, and when Jim Byrd passed he was joined at the funeral by Tour stablemates Davis Love III, Lucas Glover and Zach Johnson, who – it’s worth pointing out – flew from Ohio to South Carolina in between their first and second rounds at Firestone.

A therapist might call it closure. For Byrd, taking the time to reach each stage of the dying process at his own pace made him complete.

When Tiger Woods lost his father Earl in the summer of 2006 he was asked if being back on Tour provided emotional cover, a respite from the emotions. Woods said it did not and after a windy first round at Cog Hill Byrd echoed those sentiments.

For Byrd, and Woods, the loss of his father gave him strength that wasn’t there before. Strength to understand a Thursday bogey is no reason to sulk and an opening-round 69 is just a number.

“Honestly, my expectations were too high the last few months,” said Byrd, who is tied for 11th, three shots behind co-leaders Rory Sabbatini and Steve Marino at the BMW Championship. “Even at Memorial (Byrd’s best finish this year) I was thinking about him all the time, kind of in a fog. So I wasn’t worried about all the little things on the course that can get to you.”

No one is harder on Byrd than Byrd. An intense gym rat, Byrd’s trainer Randy Myers has to keep him from pushing too hard. Driven to improve, his swing coach Mike Bender has to temper their workouts to avoid overload or worse – injury.

Anything short of perfection on the golf course has been a reason to stew. It’s what made Byrd a three-time All-American at Clemson and a three-time Tour winner. But the Tour devours perfectionists.

“It puts you in a different light,” Barnhardt said. “He has a different perception now. It’s dialed him down a little because he was all or nothing.”

Byrd learned the game at his father’s knee and it seemed on Thursday that the man who put a golf club in his 3-year-old son’s hand, was still teaching. At the least, Jim Byrd is still watching, of that much Jonathan is sure.

It happened four weeks ago during the Wyndham Championship, Byrd’s third event back following his father’s passing. The Wyndham is as close to a home game as Byrd gets and Jim had watched his son play the southern staple nearly every year.

“Not a day goes by I don’t think about him,” Byrd said. “You have moments. I’ve seen him on the golf course. Not physically, but he was there . . . in Greensboro. He was there . . . I mean, you want your dad out there.”

For a professional golfer, whose relationship with the game and their father are impossible to separate, getting back between the gallery ropes is cathartic, but not in a bury-your-head-in-your-work kind of way.
Everywhere Byrd looks he is reminded of his father, and for a player who was racing through his Tour career at 130 rpm, that’s a good thing.

“The routine was an escape,” Byrd said. “The routine of getting ready for a tournament is a way of dealing with it. It’s healthy to get back to some normalcy. But he’s always there. I know that.”

On Thursday, Jim Byrd must have been proud.