How Marcus Byrd’s golf dream became a promise to his father

How Marcus Byrd’s golf dream became a promise to his father

LOS ANGELES — As the Southern California sky slowly fades to black on Friday night, Marcus Byrd paces back and forth just outside the players’ locker room at the Riviera Country Club. At 6 over after 34 holes, Byrd is going to miss the cut at the Genesis Invitational, where he received the tournament’s Charlie Sifford exemption from Tiger Woods, but he can’t leave. The second round was suspended because of darkness, and now the logistics of a return to the course Saturday morning to play two remaining holes before then heading off to Florida for his next tournament await the 25-year-old.

This is nothing new for Byrd. Since he turned professional late in 2020, he has embraced the lifestyle that has seen him take his own car to couches and budget hotels all over the country. The concept of home has changed from four walls filled with family to anywhere he can find a friendly face and a place to lay his head before heading to his safe haven — the golf course.

“It’s spending the last dollar you have for a flight to a golf tournament,” Byrd said of his situation. “It’s calling your uncle to help pay for it. It’s trying to find somebody there who I can just stay with for a week or two so that way I don’t have to pay for a hotel. It’s me calling my friends to see who’s all going so we can pay for a rental car together. It’s not being able to get a hotel in a city and having to end up sleeping in the bed of a truck.” Byrd paused. “I did go out and shoot 64 the next day, though.”

Byrd’s talent and drive have kept him going, and the past few months have been as close to validation as he’s received. In his past eight starts on the APGA Tour (the Advocates Professional Golf Association Tour, aimed at increasing diversity in the sport), Byrd has two wins and five second-place finishes. One of those wins came a few weeks ago at Torrey Pines the day after Max Homa won the Farmers Insurance Open. In the APGA Invitational on the same course, Byrd birdied the last two holes to win $30,000 — the biggest purse of his career — and a spot in this week’s Honda Classic.

“I’ve been playing solid golf, and that’s how I’ve been funding my career,” Byrd said. “Up until the Genesis announcement, I’ve only had one sponsor.”

Over 20 years after he recalls first picking up the game, Byrd remains steadfast in his quest through financial, practical and emotional obstacles. The decision to dedicate his life to the sport has had its highs and its lows, but it has persisted. It has evolved, but it has never stopped being a dream Byrd deems attainable. And as of 2020, following the death of his father, that dream has also transformed into a promise.

“He has to make it to the PGA Tour, there is no other option in his mind,” Byrd’s mom, Karen Jefferson, said. “He promised his dad he would finish the journey.”

The golf course that raised Marcus Byrd sits at the end of the D.C. streetcar line, on Benning Road less than 10 miles east of the White House. Its origin story is both unique and painfully familiar: In the mid-1900s, a group of Black golfers were hoping to desegregate golf courses in the area. Instead of being allowed to play the same public golf courses as everyone else in the D.C. area, they were given somewhere to build their own. In this case, that was an abandoned trash site.

Out of that land, Langston Golf Course — a place that was open to all — was born. The course turned into a young Byrd’s second home, the place where he would play golf with his dad, Larry, and where he could also spend whole days without him.

“I could get dropped off there in the morning and could be out there with no money in my pocket, people would buy me breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Byrd said. “People would just come and hang out at the clubhouse even if they weren’t playing golf. It was a really special place.”

Byrd was not too concerned with playing alongside kids his age. He spent most of his time either playing with his dad and uncle or standing around the short game area and putting green, trying to learn and replicate shots he saw the older golfers executing.

“He was kind of an old soul,” Jefferson said with a laugh. “He did the First Tee for a while, but he preferred to play with the old people instead. He liked hanging out with them.”

Though his development was anything but traditional, during his freshman year of high school, Byrd found himself leading the Maryland state championship. He eventually finished second, but that prompted a serious conversation with his dad. From that point on, the priority became giving Byrd every possible opportunity to turn golf into his profession.

Larry rented a defunct driving range near Jefferson’s mom’s house in Temple Hills, Maryland, called Golfzilla. It is now permanently closed, but for a part of Byrd’s life, that was where he spent his afternoons and nights after school, practicing under lights his dad also acquired so he could remain out there for as long as he wanted.

“They just did everything in their power to keep a golf club in my hand,” Byrd said. “My dad’s last years of his life and my mom’s even until now, everything has been geared toward what they can do to help me get to where I need to go.”

Larry might have been Byrd’s playing partner and unofficial coach, but when Jefferson and Byrd moved to Georgia during high school, she had to take on a bigger role in his career despite her physical limitations.

Byrd was nine years old when Jefferson’s car was hit head-on by a utility truck that had been stolen off nearby Andrews Air Force Base. The injuries were severe enough to require a left arm prosthetic and “a lot of metal” to stabilize Jefferson’s left side. The head injuries left her with concussion symptoms comparable to those of football players. It was unclear whether she would be able to walk again.

“I had to learn how to write, think and how to do everything all over again,” Jefferson said. The fact that the vehicle that hit her was government owned also worked against her when it came to seeking compensation. “I didn’t become a millionaire,” she said with a chuckle. “I have been on disability ever since.”

The accident changed many things, but Jefferson wanted to make sure it didn’t affect Marcus’ goals, so she began to make sacrifices. As Marcus improved once they arrived in Georgia, she wanted to make sure he could play on better golf courses against better players in better tournaments through the American Junior Golf Association. She did her research and found a grant that could help fund Byrd’s entries.

Jefferson also started making spreadsheets with tournaments that Marcus could play, detailing how much each tournament was going to cost, whether they could drive to it or have to fly, where they could stay.

“I wanted to plan and strategize to make sure he had all the opportunities others had,” Jefferson said. “Sometimes, I wish that we had some of the resources other players have. You have a mental coach, you have a swing coach. I always tell people if we had all the resources, he would be unstoppable.”

Sean Foley was patrolling the driving range at Sage Valley Country Club during the prestigious Junior Invitational in 2014 when he saw something that stopped him in his tracks. The junior player in front of the legendary swing coach stood out among the select few who had made it to the tournament. It wasn’t that this player’s ball was going further or straighter than anyone else’s — it was the way he was achieving a perfect impact position that made Foley do a double take.

“Don’t ever change his move,” Foley told Whit Turnbow, the former Middle Tennessee State coach who had recruited Byrd to the school. Byrd recalls Foley calling his move “a combination of Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia.”

Turnbow’s go-to description of said move is “a little Furyk,” referencing the former PGA pro Jim Furyk‘s unconventional, yet effective, swing. Byrd’s, of course, is his own. None of it feels textbook taught or engineered; it’s more like an artistic representation of who Byrd is: unabashedly himself in a sport that often rejects such a notion.

“The thing about Marcus is that that’s his move and he owns it,” Turnbow said, describing not just Byrd’s swing but his entire approach to the game of golf.

In 2013, Byrd won the Georgia State Junior Championship, another pivotal moment in his career. College offers began coming in, and Byrd realized the potential he had to make it to the next level. College coaches took notice of both his talent and his situation. No one connected with Byrd and his family more than Turnbow at Middle Tennessee and the coach who was hired to replace him, Brennan Webb.

Byrd became one of the best players on MTSU’s team. Mark McEntire, his coach during his senior season at MTSU, recalls Byrd telling him during a conference championship that they just needed to make it to match play and “it would be over.” Byrd found himself three down in his own match. McEntire reminded Byrd that he had told him he was good in match play, and Byrd ended up shooting 29 on the back nine to win the match.

“I told you I was a pretty good match player, coach,” Byrd told McEntire after the win.

“Marcus played his best when the lights were on,” Webb said. “As soon as we got to a tournament or he got close to contention, you know, his energy picked up and he got engaged. And then his talent shone through then.”

Byrd calls Webb “a second dad,” and they still keep in touch regularly. His time in the state of Tennessee is still shaping his career. Through the Tennessee Golf Foundation (which Turnbow leads), Byrd was able to participate in a rewards program funded by a local country club, The Grove, that granted membership to junior players who needed a place to practice and play but couldn’t afford it.

Webb, Turnbow and McEntire all form a support group that help connect Byrd to resources on the road. If they know someone who can get Byrd a place to stay, they will make the connection happen. In the past, Turnbow also found Byrd a sponsor to pay for a year’s worth of events on mini-tours.

“He’s got a beautiful support system here if he needs it,” Turnbow said. “We text sometimes, and he says, ‘I wouldn’t be here without you guys,’ but that’s not true. Marcus is a great golfer, but his tenacity and his willingness to keep going is what has gotten him to where he is.”

The well-known 18th tee shot at Riviera Country Club is a blind shot that leaves a steep climb to its serpentine, left-to-right fairway. The walk up the hill is no small feat. On this late Friday afternoon, Jefferson — who has been walking the first nine holes of Byrd’s second round alongside the rest of his family — splits from the group who go up the hill. The walk around the right side of the hole is longer but less strenuous.

“I still can’t go up hills like that,” Jefferson says with a smile. “This is how I learned to walk again, though. Walking golf courses to watch Marcus play.”

For as long as Byrd has been playing golf competitively, one of his parents has walked those courses alongside him. When Jefferson was busy with work before the accident, Larry would be the one tagging along. When Larry’s illness (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or COPD) kept him from doing so, Jefferson was ready to take on that role. “We shared the journey together,” Jefferson said.

As Jefferson and her family walk alongside the fairways at Riviera, there is a void. Larry had always been the one to talk Byrd through shots and rounds, both good and bad, before and after. In 2020, Larry died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease complications brought on by COVID-19. Because of restrictions, Byrd was not able to visit Larry at the hospital. He never said goodbye.

“He was a fighter,” Byrd said. “Those later years l feel like he did everything in his power to just stay around as long as I could to make sure I got to where I needed to go.”

Larry’s death called into question Byrd’s golf endeavors. Because the dream to play at a high level had always been such a collective effort between the two of them, Byrd had to take a moment to look within, admitting that golf had become something he used to avoid the grieving process.

“When I lost him, I had to figure out what I really loved about the game and what was the thing that really kept me coming back every day,” Byrd said. “It was the memories. Every time I played, I was able to remember the good memories we had together.”

To Byrd, the lasting memory of his father won’t be where he was in his final moments, but rather of him coming to the NCAA regionals in North Carolina during the 2018 season. Larry was not doing well, but he was able to attend and watch Byrd continue to fulfill the dream they both started.

Those memories are now reminders of the ultimate goal at hand, especially when Byrd finds himself struggling to get to his next stop. This past week at Riviera was special — because of the exemption, he and his family were taken care of. But as soon as Byrd departed for Florida and the Honda Classic, the grind resumed. Hotel prices in West Palm Beach were skyrocketing way beyond his budget. A friend from D.C. happened to know someone in the area who owned a nearby Holiday Inn. A special rate was given and happily accepted.

But no matter how he gets to the first tee of this tournament or the next, Byrd will start things off the same way every time. He’ll tee the ball up, back up and take a look to the sky. He’ll point in that direction, a gesture to his dad, and go into his pre-shot routine. Once he lines up and takes the club back, nothing else — not where he will sleep nor how he’ll get to his next tournament — matters. He is exactly where he is supposed to be.

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