U.S. AMATEUR
Overcoming Challenges is Par for Marcus Byrd’s Course August 10, 2020 By Tom Mackin

Marcus Byrd is grateful for the opportunity to finally compete in his first U.S. Amateur this week. (Steven Gibbons/USGA)

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Traveling cross-country during a pandemic to play in the 2020 U.S. Amateur Championship on two courses he has never seen before would barely seem to qualify as a challenge when you consider Marcus Byrd’s golf journey.

Flash back to 2011, after he finished second in the Maryland high school state golf championship as a freshman, then moved with his mother to Georgia to seek out better competition. The transition paid off, as Byrd was named the 2013 Georgia State Golf Association Junior Player of the Year while a student at Dunwoody High.

While other talented juniors were traversing the country each summer to play in high-level tournaments, Byrd needed to work various jobs to earn money for college, including caddieing at Burning Tree Country Club in Bethesda, Md.

Then there was the serious rib injury he suffered in a car accident the summer before his senior year at Middle Tennessee State University in 2018. Around the same time, Byrd learned that his head coach (Brennan Webb) and several players were leaving the program. He decided to stay, and after returning to health the following spring, Byrd won two tournaments and was named Conference USA’s Player of the Year. He also led the Blue Raiders to a third consecutive NCAA regional appearance.

When his plans to turn professional earlier this year were scuttled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Byrd received some good news. His position in the World Amateur Golf Ranking® (No. 83 as of June 24) was high enough to earn an exemption into the U.S. Amateur, a championship he had failed to qualify for multiple times in the past few years.

And to top it off, Byrd also has shouldered the responsibility of being a role model for fellow African-American golfers in a country where, according to the National Golf Foundation, just 1.5 percent of competitive golfers are Black.

“It’s kind of a burden, because you have to walk in the right way since people are watching you,” said Byrd by phone before departing for the Oregon coast. “But I love the game so much and all the work I put into it. I love the people I meet through it. Even though it does bring responsibility, I just feel like I wouldn’t be happier doing anything else. I feel like no matter where I go, if golf is a part of it I will have a place in this world. If I give people extra motivation or extra hope with my play, than I’m all for it.”

Said Middle Tennessee State coach Mark McEntire, who coached Byrd during his senior year: “He does everything he can to embrace that situation. He doesn’t shy away from it. He knows what’s out there. It’s a very difficult thing to make a living playing professional golf, regardless of your color. He just has a way of turning on the charm. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.”

In a turbulent year that includes Black Lives Matter protests decrying social injustice throughout the world, Byrd believes the most important thing is simply raising awareness of existing issues.

“People just want to be heard and accepted,” said Byrd, who played most of his golf during his formative years at Langston Golf Course in Washington, D.C. “For me, I’m just trying to use everything that’s going on to bring people together. A lot of people know me because I’m an African-American golfer. I do a lot of golf camps so I can show kids that I have had a lot of opportunities just like anyone else.”

The past two years, Byrd has discussed his golf journey with African-American youngsters at the Steve Harvey Invitational Golf Tournament in Atlanta.

“I asked them if they were playing in tournaments,” he said. “Most weren’t because their parents can’t afford to pay for American Junior Golf Association (AJGA) events. I told them about the ACE Grants the AJGA offers, which got me a college scholarship. Getting that grant allowed me to play in junior tournaments, and when I finished second and fourth in two of those, that’s pretty much what sealed a college scholarship offer.

“I tell these kids if this is what you want to do, there are people out there who can help you. There are ways so that everyone has an opportunity.”

While his older brothers played basketball, Byrd shared a passion for golf with his father, Larry, who got him started with competitive events at The First Tee when he was 7 years old. When his father and uncle invested in a driving range in Maryland, Marcus would beg them to keep the lights on until 11 p.m. so he could keep hitting balls. 

“When I finished second in the state high school championship in Maryland as a freshman, my dad said, ‘You’ve got to make a decision now,’” said Byrd. “I decided to stick with golf and it was the best decision I could have made.”

Encouragement from others reinforced that decision.

“Some of his peers really made him feel that golf wasn’t what he should be playing,” said Terry Shaffer, a Maryland-based instructor who has worked with Byrd for 15 years. “But myself, the principal (Kimberly Hill) at North Point High School in Waldorf, his mom (Karen Jefferson) and dad all said, ‘Wait a minute Marcus, you’ve got some talent here.’ He learned the discipline to stick to what he does best. A lot of kids seem to lose the passion for the game, but not Marcus. I can’t say enough good things about him.”

McEntire, who played in the 1999 U.S. Amateur and 2000 U.S. Amateur Public Links, shares that feeling.

“Everybody on our team looked up to Marcus because of his ability and personality,” he said. “He wants to make the game his livelihood and he took it very seriously. He did a really nice job with all the young guys during practice rounds, taking them under his wing and showing them how to practice.”

Byrd, whose only other USGA championship experience came in the 2014 U.S. Junior Amateur at The Club at Carlton Woods in The Woodlands, Texas (he lost in the Round of 64), is confident about his chances this week at Bandon Dunes.

“In college I played against a lot of guys in the field, so I know that at my highest level I can play just as well as them,” said Byrd, who plans to turn professional after the championship. “If I just play my game, reaching match play won’t be an issue. Tanner Owens (a former college teammate who played in the 2018 U.S. Amateur but did not advance to match play) is also in the field, so hopefully we can make some noise for the Blue Raiders.”

Arizona resident Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA websites. Email him at temackinjr@gmail.com.

 

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