Mistake-free golf lands Byrd second-straight victory

January 10, 2011
Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM Managing Editor

KAPALUA, Hawaii -- Graeme McDowell did almost everything right on Sunday, tying the course record with a sizzling 11-under 62 and showing why he just may be, at this moment, golf's most exciting player.

Final-round coverage
BIG MAC: Graeme McDowell simply set out to have a fun Sunday. Eleven birdies and a record-tying 62 later, he nearly stole the season opener. Fun indeed. Story
NOT HIS DAY: Steve Stricker started Sunday with a share of the lead, but he couldn't keep pace with Jonathan Byrd in the final group. Story

Long-hitting Robert Garrigus did almost everything right this weekend, provided you ignore his struggles on the first hole at the Plantation Course.

But in the end, the PGA TOUR's season-opening Hyundai Tournament of Champions was claimed by the guy who did almost nothing wrong this week.

Jonathan Byrd just kept his head down, his focus simple and his mistakes to a minimum. He carded just three bogeys, fewer than anybody else during the four rounds, and none in the final round. He kept plugging along, waiting on his chances, not forcing the issue. He ignored the leaderboards; he didn't look at a single one Sunday. In his mind, that would've just complicated things.

And even when the odds seemed to be against him, when he admittedly found himself at a disadvantage in two playoff holes against Garrigus, Byrd was never fazed. He never blinked. He made his pars and then won the tournament on the second playoff hole when Garrigus failed to convert a 3-1/2 foot par putt.

"I'm pretty overwhelmed," Byrd said.

He should be. It's a pretty overwhelming journey he's been on the past three months. Incredible, really.

Last October, at the start of the Fall Series, Byrd found himself 130th on the money list. That meant he hadn't yet secured his TOUR card for 2011. It was, in his own words, "gut-check" time.

"You get to a point where you might lose your card," Byrd said, "... and it forces you to find a way to play well."

He found it in Las Vegas, winning the Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in the most spectacular fashion in TOUR history -- an ace in a playoff. His card was secured for the next two years.

This week was his first start since that win. The good vibes from Vegas remained with him. He entered Sunday tied with Garrigus and Steve Stricker for the lead, three shots clear of the rest of the field.

But the leaderboard would tighten up, thanks mostly to McDowell.

The reigning U.S. Open champ didn't think he had a shot at the title when he teed off six shots off the lead, so he just decided to play loose and free golf. He birdied four straight holes early. He threw in a handful of other birdies. Then he reeled off another string of four consecutive birdies on the back nine.

The last one came at the 16th hole. That's when it suddenly dawned on McDowell that he actually had a chance to win.

"Hold on," he thought.

At that point, McDowell had 11 birdies in 16 bogey-free holes. But he needed one more -- and he couldn't produce it at the difficult par-4 17th or the par-5 18th.

Later, McDowell would say that he lost the tournament in the first three days by playing the final six holes at the Plantation course in even par. "That's not good enough," he said. Ultimately, though, he was satisfied with a 62, which ties the course record set by K.J. Choi in 2003. The 11-under round also ties for his personal low.

Considering he had changed equipment from Callaway to Srixon during the offseason, much to the consternation of some who wondered why he would switch from the clubs that had produced a U.S. Open win, McDowell was ecstatic that his performance this week will put any fears to rest.

"It's great to come out and answer all of the questions this week," McDowell said. "I realized it was going to be a difficult way to start the season with new equipment in the bag coming off the back of last year."

With the outcome now in the hands of Garrigus and Byrd -- Stricker surprisingly could not keep pace on this day -- it was thought that the longer hitter would have the advantage on the playoffs holes, starting at the 18th.

But Garrigus hit his drive a bit thin and could not reach the green in two, and both players produced pars.

Now on to the second playoff hole, the 520-yard par-4 first. Garrigus hit a huge drive; Byrd hit, in his words, a "poor" tee shot. Both players ended up with the same line on their birdie putts. While Byrd left himself a simple tap-in, Garrigus ran his putt well past the pin.

Trying to take the break out of the par putt, Garrigus pushed it a centimeter to the right and it lipped out.

It was the second bogey of the day for Garrigus at No. 1. That came on the heels of a double bogey that he suffered in Saturday's third round. He joked that he probably doesn't want to play that hole again.

He didn't mean it, of course. If he ever sees No. 1 at Kapalua again, that means he would have won another PGA TOUR event. But on this day, the satisfaction for Garrigus came in being in the heat of competition and enjoying himself in Hawaii.

"I've lost about 133 golf tournaments," Garrigus said. "It's not that big a deal. I get a nice check and I get to go next week and relax and have some fun."

Byrd, of course, gets the first invite to next year's Hyundai Tournament of Champions. Winning in back-to-back starts -- with less theatrics on Sunday, of course -- is both a confidence booster and a humbling experience.

Earlier in the week, Byrd looked around the locker room at the names he would be competing against. Major champions. Winners of huge events. World-class stars. Did he belong with those guys? Byrd wasn't sure.

After all, just a few months ago, he was on the outside looking in, a golfer just struggling to keep a job on TOUR. But thanks to his perserverance -- and his spirituality -- he's now won twice in three months and, in the process, eliminating some of those self-doubts.

"We learn more when we struggling," Byrd said. "About our games. About our character."

He's not struggling anymore. Now he's just winning.