CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Clemson alumnus and Anderson native Jonathan Byrd says he feels like a different person, feels younger than he did through the first few months of the 2013-14 season.
The pressure of a Major Medical Extension can do that to a PGA Tour member. “I was starting to look in the mirror during the medical and starting to think, ‘Man, I think I’ve aged 10 years,’” Byrd said.
The pressure is off, and Byrd played like a free man Thursday in the opening round of the 12th annual Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club, shooting a 4-under-par 68 to sit in a tie for fourth.
Byrd had wrist surgery and missed the first three months of the 2013 season, then made just five of 16 cuts for the remainder of the season, though he managed a runner-up finish at the Reno-Tahoe Open.
He began the 2013-14 season on a Major Medical Extension with 10 events to earn $166,500 to retain his PGA Tour status for the remainder of this season, and cleared the number in his ninth event on March 16 with a tie for 32nd in the Valspar Championship in Tampa.
“It just felt like I was carrying a boulder around the golf course,” Byrd said. “It has freed me up. You still have your issues that you always have but it’s been a lot easier playing golf. It feels marvelous. It got tight getting down to the end.”
Since earning full status for 2014, Byrd has tied for 19th and 31st and missed a cut.
“It’s easier to go out and play well at golf tournaments and work on your game and build on good weeks and that’s where I am,” Byrd said. “My game is starting to build and I’m putting that [medical exemption] behind me and hopefully I can do well now.”
Byrd, who has five PGA Tour wins, the last in January 2011, made six birdies and two bogeys and holed birdie putts of 75 and 22 feet on the final holes of each nine. He’s two shots behind leader Angel Cabrera.
A title and turbulence
It has been a struggle for 2013 Wells Fargo champion Derek Ernst since his victory last May. In the 2013 season, he made just four of 13 cuts without a top-40 finish following his win, and this season he’s made four of 14 cuts – he has played in two events without cuts – with a tie for 30th his best effort.
His fate this week is still to be determined after a 1-over 73 on Thursday that has him tied for 67th.
Ernst wasn’t having much luck on the PGA Tour last year before his win in a playoff over Englishman David Lynn as the fourth alternate at the beginning of the week. The 22-year-old tour rookie was driving a rental car to Athens, Ga., for a Web.com Tour event when he got the call from a PGA Tour official informing him he was in the field.
He was ranked No. 1,207 in the world and had made just three cuts in his eight previous PGA Tour events. He only gained entry into the event because the poor condition of the greens last year caused several players to withdraw early in the week.
In the past year, he has changed his agent, swing coach and caddie, and hired a personal trainer who has helped him add 20 pounds.
“I changed a lot of things since I won,” Ernst said. “I knew I had that two-year exemption so I was like, ‘Ok, I want to prepare myself for longevity out here on the tour.’ … I wanted to make the changes so I can be out here until I’m 50 and be competing every week. You don’t focus on the results, you focus on the process. The results haven’t been there, but I’m 23 years old and I’m going to learn from my mistakes and move on.”
For this week only, Ernst has employed his caddie from last year’s Wells Fargo tournament, Aaron Terry, whom he has known most of his life. “I just brought him back for good vibes, good mojo going on this week,” Ernst said.
A year later
Scott Gardiner, a former pupil of instructor Nick Bradley of Sunset Beach, N.C., and Long Bay Club in Longs, is hoping a return to Quail Hollow Club revives his game. He’s hoping the life comes in the second round after an opening 74 has him tied for 84th.
Gardiner, the PGA Tour’s first Australian Aboriginal golfer, played well enough to compete in the final twosome in last year’s third round with Phil Mickelson but showed nerves and shot a 4-over 76 en route to a tie for 22nd.
That was his second-best finish last year. “It’s probably the most excited I’ve been to be on a golf course this year, I’d say,” Gardiner said. “The condition is immaculate and they’ve really done a good job with the greens. Charlotte’s a great place.”
Bradley began working with Gardiner late last July, before Gardiner dropped into the four-tournament Web.com Tour playoffs in an attempt to retain his PGA Tour status for 2014. He was successful with finishes of third and second in two of the events.
Bradley said he stopped working with Gardiner early this year at the conclusion of a consultancy period, and a tie for 13th at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am is Gardiner’s only top-30 in 12 PGA Tour events this season.
Gardiner said he has worked some with Cameron McCormick, an Australian he’s known for some time who has been Jordan Spieth’s swing coach since Spieth was 12. Gardiner credits McCormick with providing structure in his practices.
The Fayetteville, Ark., resident has been trying to get his body right after hitting indoors off mats for much of the winter. “You don’t know you’re hurting yourself until you’re hurt,” Gardiner said. “I’m trying to get on top of that and play some good golf from here on in.”
Some stars absent
The Wells Fargo Championship has annually attracted most of the players in the top 10 of the world, though this year Phil Mickelson at No. 9 and Justin Rose at No. 10 are the only two players in the top 10. Participants Rory McIlroy and Zach Johnson are 11th and 12th.
A host of the world’s top players have their reasons for not being here. Tiger Woods had back surgery, Jason Day is nursing an injured thumb, Matt Kuchar ended a long playing stretch of events with his win at the RBC Heritage two weeks ago, Henrik Stenson and Jason Dufner played in China last week, Adam Scott has a limited schedule and Dustin Johnson changed his schedule.
Masters winner Bubba Watson has missed the Wells Fargo only one other time in the past nine years – in 2012 after he had won his first green jacket.
Mickelson believes the changing of the greens from bentgrass to MiniVerde ultradwarf Bermudagrass is another factor that may have kept some players from committing, though more players may have skipped the tournament had the greens remained bent following their poor condition last year. New and rebuilt green complexes generally take a couple years to soften.
“It takes a growing period, and even though they might be soft they will never be receptive . . . so balls won’t hold, and I think some players probably wanted to wait a year and maybe play some place they haven’t played,” Mickelson said. “But I was so excited to come and see it, because I just knew that they were going to get it right, and they sure did. It’s really fun to play.”
Contact ALAN BLONDIN at 626-0284. To view Blondin’s blog, Green Reading, or Twitter page, @alanblondin, visit myrtlebeachonline.com.