Byrd back in big leagues and thrilled to be at Sony Open

FILE - In this July 16, 2017, file photo, Jonathan Byrd hits off the second tee during the final round of the John Deere Classic golf tournament, at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill. A five-time winner on the PGA Tour, Byrd spent 14 years competing against the best on venerable courses while driving courtesy cars from nice hotels in big cities. And then he found himself on the Web.com Tour, the equivalent of golf's minor leagues, with players he knew nothing about except for their raw talent and extreme power. He cleared the final hurdle of his return by winning the Web.com Tour Championship three months ago to earn back his full PGA Tour card, and will be playing in the Sony Open this week in Honolulu.. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall, File)

HONOLULU — Jonathan Byrd resisted the urge to pout about his predicament.

A five-time winner on the PGA Tour, he spent 14 years competing against the best on venerable courses while driving courtesy cars from nice hotels in big cities. And then he found himself on the Web.com Tour, the equivalent of golf's minor leagues, with players he knew nothing about except for their raw talent and extreme power.

They were the future. He was hanging onto the past.

"I did not want to be a grumpy old tour player who's saying the whole time, 'It's not like this on the big tour,'" said Byrd, who turns 40 at the end of the month. "Because if you go down that road, it's endless. There's so many reminders every week that this is not where you want to be. And that's the internal struggle. I'm not where I want to be. But am I going to embrace the challenge or let it take me down?"

He chose the former, and he believes that attitude allowed him to get back to where he felt he belonged.

So when Byrd emphatically says he is "thrilled" to be at the Sony Open, he's not just talking about the warmth off Oahu shores, the walk along royal palms and the gentle surf just beyond the hedges on the boundary of Waialae Country Club.

He cleared the final hurdle of his return by winning the Web.com Tour Championship three months ago to earn back his full PGA Tour card. He already has played four times in the new season that began in October.

Even so, it was that flight across the Pacific for his first tournament of the new year that stirred so many emotions.

"The last two offseasons, when I was preparing to go play the Web.com Tour, there were great opportunities but it was harder to get up for it," he said. "I didn't know the courses. I didn't know what the travel was going to be like, knowing my family was not going to be out as much. This year, I've got my family out for two weeks. I've got a lot of great memories here."

So does Justin Thomas, the defending champion who shot 59 in the opening round and broke the 72-hole record on the PGA Tour with a 253 to win by seven shots. Thomas and Jordan Spieth are the only players from the top 10 in the world who are playing the Sony Open beginning Thursday, a week after the winners-only field for the Sentry Tournament of Champions had the top five in the world.

Even though the PGA Tour season began the first week of October, several players had a limited schedule in the fall. It's not unusual for top players who look on the front of golf bags for names to figure out who's next to them on the range.

Byrd doesn't have that problem. He's spent the last two years with several of them.

"I know all the Web guys. A lot of these guys are my buddies now," Byrd said.

Byrd spent Tuesday with Keith Mitchell, a prototypical modern player with great power and enthusiasm. They were colleagues on the Web.com Tour, though Byrd also played the role as mentor, and that's especially the case now.

He showed Mitchell various options off the tee at No. 14 in the trade wind. Byrd hit a few bunker shots right of the 15th green, and Mitchell took notice and followed him in there. It was just like old times, except this is still new to only one of them.

"Having a guy be successful on the highest level of tour, it's good to have someone like that to lean on," Mitchell said. "He's been helpful, teaching me stuff about traveling, golf courses. He's good about plotting his way around golf courses."

Byrd leaned on Mitchell, Tom Lovelady and others for enthusiasm. Youth is infectious. And while it could be easy for Byrd to get intimidated by so much power from so many young players, two years in the minor leagues taught him that a game that allowed him to win five times is still good enough.

Wrist surgery in 2012 set him back, and before long Byrd said he was playing for money to keep his card instead of playing to win. He fell out of the top 150 in 2015 and was headed for the minors. Having been away for two years, he now thinks the experience will only help him.

"Getting to play with the young guys, like Keith Mitchell, he's got great energy, great enthusiasm. He's ready to conquer the PGA Tour and he's got great swag and hits it 330," Byrd said. "It's like, 'Wow. This is what's coming.'"

If nothing else, it should brace him for the next generation. He's already seen it.

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