2002: PGA Tour - Byrd bounces closer to Masters

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Pine Mountain, Ga.

Amanda Talley did what any good fiancee of a PGA Tour player would. She took one for the team.

But a fortuitous bounce off the back of his wife-to-be was about all the help Jonathan Byrd needed in the final round of the Buick Challenge Oct. 27. The rest he did on his own.

Byrd’s 9-under-par 63 on Callaway Gardens’ Mountain View Course earned him his first Tour victory, thrust the former Clemson University standout into the middle of the rookie of the year race and put him on the verge of earning a spot in the Masters next April.

He accomplished all that by going 7 under par in a scintillating five-hole stretch on the back nine – sandwiching two eagles around three birdies – that gave him a five-shot lead. Byrd finished at a tournament-record 27-under 261, then survived a strong charge by David Toms (final-round 65) to win by a stroke. Phil Mickelson also shot 63 Sunday to finish third at 23-under 265.

Byrd, 24, became the first rookie to win this season and the 17th first-time winner on Tour in 2002.

But Byrd’s triumph might not have been possible had his errant drive on the par-5 seventh hole not found – of all people – Talley. “Probably my worst swing of the day,” said Byrd.

The ball hopped off the cart path, deflected off Talley’s back and spun back toward the right rough rather than heading into the woods. From there, an admittedly shaken Byrd (“I was thinking I hit her in the head, on the fly”) managed to reach the green in two, then two-putted from 60 feet for birdie that set up his eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie-eagle stretch on holes 11-15.

“She did as much to help the win as I did,” he said of Talley, who had a small bruise on her back, but otherwise was fine.

Byrd’s final eagle, a 25-foot putt on the par-5 15th, put him 10 under for the day and a Tour record-tying 28 under for a 72-hole tournament – with three holes still to play.

A bogey by Byrd at the par-3 16th, however, almost gave Toms – playing in the final group, behind Byrd – the opening he needed. Toms also eagled 15, then birdied 17 to cut the deficit to a stroke.

After Byrd missed a 12-foot birdie putt on 18, he and Talley huddled under an umbrella outside the scoring tent off the 18th green, turning down an offer for a better view of Toms’ 20-foot uphill putt to tie. Toms, the 1999 Buick champion, just missed the putt to the left.

After hearing the reaction of the crowd, Byrd and Talley hugged for several seconds. The two will be married at the end of the month and will set up their home in St. Simons Island, Ga.

“I’m more excited about that than anything else,” Byrd said of his wedding. “I’ve got a great fiancee.”

She’s got the bruise – and Byrd’s got the $666,000 first-place check – to prove it. Byrd’s triumph lifted him from 94th to 41st on the money list. He now is nipping at the heels of Pat Perez (No. 39) and Peter Lonard (No. 40) for Rookie of the Year honors. He’ll play in this week’s Southern Farm Bureau Classic for the chance to earn a spot in the Masters, which can be secured with a top 40 finish on the money list.

“That’s a big goal of mine,” said Byrd, who now lives near Columbia, S.C., less than an hour and a half from Augusta National Golf Club. “That’s the closest Tour event to my house, so I definitely want to be there.”

One player who was bound for East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta this week because of his Buick finish was Kenny Perry, whose tie for seventh at Callaway Gardens lifted him into the season-ending Tour Championship.

Perry earned $115,316 to leap from No. 31 to No. 27, knocking Brad Faxon from 30th to 31st in earnings. Faxon, who tied for 64th at the Buick after a final-round 73, was the only player to lose his spot.

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