Zack Byrd: Thriving, surviving and hoping for the best

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By Elsa Bonstein, Golf Gab

It’s been a mixed bag for Zack Byrd this year. Highs and lows, with Murphy’s Law working overtime to thwart his efforts to become a PGA touring pro.
Zack is from Calabash, a junior phenomenon who cut his teeth on the long, treacherous bunker-filled Carolina Shores Golf Course. Home-schooled, Zack played in junior golf events thrughout the country and went to Coastal Carolina University on a golf scholarship. During each of the four years Zack attended, CCU won the Big South Championship.
He became good friends with Dustin Johnson and they played a lot of golf together in and out of college.
Since graduating, Zack has been playing mini-tours and trying to qualify for the PGA Tour. He’s played Nationwide Tour events and he’s been to Q-School several times without hitting that home run.
Looking in from the outside, Zack’s life looks like fun and games. Play golf for a living? Traveling around the country, playing in golf tournaments? What a life. Clearly better than working in an office cubicle.  
Wait a minute. Not so fast.
Many of our more successful golf pros own yachts and private airplanes and live in mansions. But for every one of those, there are hundreds of guys like Zack Byrd, living hand-to-mouth, scraping by and hoping for the big break.
This year has been particularly trying for Zack, now 26 and in his fourth year of trying to make it onto the PGA Tour.
“This year I found out at the last minute that I got in to a Nationwide Tour event in Chile,” he said. “My wife and I decided this could be a big break for me. We ponied up the money for my entry fee and airline tickets. I flew down all excited to play and when I got there, discovered they had lost my luggage, including my golf clubs.
“I got my stuff back in time to play in the first round, then missed the cut by two shots. It was hugely disappointing.”
Because Zack was determined to do well in 2012, he had put away money in advance to keep him going through several tournaments. He got into a tournament in Utah at the last minute, flew out and missed the cut once more.       
The cruelest twist of fate came in June, when he went to Mexico to play in a tour event.
“While in Mexico, I came down with a parasite that made me violently sick for several weeks,” he said. “I did manage to play in the tournament but had to make a pit stop every four holes. I missed the cut by two shots again.”
The parasite left Zack weak and discouraged. He lost 20 pounds and did not make it through Q-School this year.
“It’s been a crazy year,” he said. “I tried so hard, practiced and played, but things just happened along the way. I was so discouraged and feeling poorly that I even stopped playing for a while. My wife, Ali, works as a teaching pro, and right now, she is the sole support of the family and that does not make me feel good. We’ve run through our savings this year. We’d like to start a family, but that is totally out of the question now. I don’t have a sponsor, and that makes it difficult.”
When Zack plays in Nationwide events, the other competitors marvel at his tenacity. Many of them have generous sponsorships and travel with personal trainers and caddies.
“Those guys look at me and wonder how I keep going,” Zack said. “But, I know that I’m too good a golfer to quit and I’m pressing on for the rest of this year and into 2013.”
Zack plans to stay in the area and play in the NGA Carolina Winter Series. In the spring, he may go up to Canada and try the Canadian Tour.
The NGA is the former Hooters Tour and has events throughout the East Coast, with a summer and winter series in the Grand Strand area.
Last week, I went to Panther’s Run to see Zack play in the second round of a three-day event. He shot well on the first day, finishing with a 1-under par 70. The second round was a disappointing 78.
“It was crazy,” he said. “I struck the ball well, but when I landed on the green on the second hole, it kicked back into the water. On the next hole, the ball hit the lip of the bunker and dove in. Even my playing partners commented on the incredibly bad luck I had.”
Zack and I waited in the Panther’s Run clubhouse to see whether he qualified, and unbelievably, he did, by a single shot. The next day, Zack came back with another round of 70, which put him tied for eighth, with a purse of $800.
It’s not cheap to play on these mini-tours. The membership in the NGA Carolina Winter Series costs $700. The series runs from October to February with tournaments almost every week. The entry for each event is $600-$700, so a hopeful young man has to win frequently, just to stay afloat. There is a guaranteed purse of $5,000 for finishing in first place.
To play in NGA events in our area, Zack gets up in the dark at his home in Murrells Inlet, S.C., drives to Brunswick County. He practices, plays the round and then drives home because there is no money for hotel fares.
Surprisingly, Zack is optimistic about his future.
“The average age to get a Tour Card is 28,” he said. “I’m 26 years old and believe I am good enough to make it. I am stronger now because of all that happened to me this year. I want it even more.”
Zack grinned, then said, “What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger.”
To follow Zack on the NGA Tour, check out ngatour.com. Click on Carolina Winter Series. The tour is at Aberdeen Country Club in Longs, S.C., Nov. 13-15. On Dec. 4-5, the Winter Series plays at Long Bay in Myrtle Beach, S.C. At the end of January, the tour comes to Pearl East, Meadowlands and Farmstead for three straight events.
Let’s root for Zack Byrd and the other local hopefuls. Better yet, come on out and watch them play.  
After all, the motto of the NGA Tour is “Where tomorrow’s PGA champions are playing today.”
Golf Gab groaner
Some aphorisms: When blondes have more fun, do they know it?  Money isn’t everything, but it sure keeps the kids in touch.  We have enough “youth.” How about a fountain of “smart”? Congressmen should wear uniforms like NASCAR drivers so we could identify their corporate sponsors.

Elsa Bonstein is a golf columnist for The Beacon. Reach her at elanbon@atmc.net. Follow her at facebook.com/elsa.bonstein.