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Flying Under the Radar

Jonathan Byrd is the best golfer out there that most fans have never heard of. Byrd, flying under the radar. He's twenty-five, he finished in the top forty on the money list last year, was rookie of the year, this year he finished in the top ten at the Masters and nearly did the same at the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields. He's out of Clemson, only five-foot-eight, Hogan small and hitting Hogan clubs and still hits it a mile. He's the kid who hit one about 350 at the Open and nearly made Johnny Miller fall out of the tower while once again explaining the divot to everybody.

Ask Byrd his strengths as a player and he matter-of-factly tells you, "I'm very long, I hit a lot of greens and I have a great short game."

You're probably thinking the same thing I am: Sounds like a plan.

So he's got a golf game. And he has an absolutely wonderful name for the game. You can see the headlines already—byrd bird wins it. But for all the reasons that Byrd is going to end up a star, here's the best one: He has a great story to bring with him. It's not Sam Snead playing barefoot, but it will do.

Jonathan Byrd's story is about hitting his wife with a golf ball, then winning his first PGA tournament.

I say to him, "Tell me about how you met your wife by hitting her with a ball."

Byrd laughs.

"That's not the story," he says.

This is the story:

"I already knew Amanda," he says. "We were taking the same class at Clemson my junior year, but I didn't have the guts to ask her out on a date right away. Wasn't man enough. Anyway, we ended up dating the last two years of college and two years long distance. . . ."

Fine, fine, get to the good part.

"We would end up getting married in November [2002]. This happened the month before that, at the Buick Challenge at Callaway Gardens."

Which usually has galleries slightly bigger than your club's member-guest.

"Correct," Byrd says.

It is worth pointing out that Byrd, who had won the previous year on the old Buy.com Tour (and got his Tour card by finishing eighth on the Buy.com money list), was trying to win his first regular tournament as a PGA Tour pro. At that point, he would have been the first rookie to win on the Tour in 2002. And if he were to win the Buick Challenge, he would be one of only ten rookies ever to win a million dollars his first year out playing with the big boys. It is also worth pointing out that he wound up going eyeball-to-eyeball with David Toms after what was once a five-stroke lead on Sunday had been cut to two when Byrd made a bogey coming home and Toms made an eagle.

Did I mention that on this day Jonathan Byrd, whom people knew even less about then than they do now, would have an eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle stretch of holes?

But we're getting way ahead of ourselves here, with a Byrd story that is probably starting to feel a little like a shaggy-dog story.

"Seventh hole, Sunday," he says. "I'm playing great, no doubt. But on the seventh, I hit one wide right. And someone says, 'You hit somebody.' Well, I'm a little surprised by that, since there are so few people out there. But one of them is Amanda. And when I get down there, I find out that not only did I hit her square in the back, but I also got a favorable kick."

She was okay?

"Golf-ball-size bruise on her back was all. She was fine," Byrd says, laughing. "I was great. Not only did I get the good bounce, I ended up making a birdie." And winning the tournament by one.

That's his story, and he's sticking to it. He and Amanda got married the next month. This year he hung around at the Masters on Sunday and even went into the final round at the Open thinking he had a chance to make something happen if Jim Furyk came back a little—which Furyk surely did not—and he could get something going early. One of these days, you will see Byrd on a major Sunday and he will be doing a lot more than looking for his fiancée and his ball. We hear a lot, and rightly so, about Charles Howell III. And Ricky Barnes swung his way into the spotlight, and everybody's golf consciousness, the way he played at Augusta when he was paired with Tiger the first two days. Barnes is big and blond and looks like he could have saved all the bikinis David Hasselhoff didn't in Baywatch, so you know the people in charge of the Tour and of television want Barnes to be around for the next twenty years or so.

Over the first big stretch of the 2003 season, Byrd wasn't even low Jonathan, since that title went to Jonathan Kaye after he won his first PGA tournament, also a Buick event, this one at Westchester Country Club in a play-off. Of course it is all part of the most extraordinary talent pool in the history of the known universe, one in which the next 100 guys after the top 100 guys are separated by a handful of strokes and luck and nerve.

And even bounces of the ball.

Sometimes that is all it takes, and Jonathan Byrd now knows that better than anybody. Because for all his length and all the greens he hits and that great short game he talks about, maybe things don't begin to happen as fast for him if he doesn't get the Amanda bounce and doesn't make birdie. Golfers are stronger than ever, but their careers, even starting out, can be as fragile as one of the pages in their yardage books.

"You need talent, you need luck, you need to be able to hit it a mile, you need to keep it in the fairway, you need to make putts," Byrd says. "You better be well-rounded, or you're not going to last. If you're going to allow yourself to dream in this game, your dreams better start with a solid game."

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