Byrum flies under radar to win AZ Open
By BILL HUFFMAN
Television broadcasters enjoy analyzing golfers’ swings, and for the most part know what a player does well or doesn’t do well. Occasionally, they back up that analysis by putting their own games on the line.
Such was the case a few weeks back when Golf Channel color commentator Curt Byrum captured the Arizona Open “just kind of out of the blue.’’ Byrum, who holds the unique role of reporting on all three men’s tours — the Nationwide (10 events), PGA (nine events) and Champions (seven events) – said he felt good about the victory and admitted, “It can’t hurt my credibility in the booth.’’
“When you can still compete, no matter what the level, that end of it makes you feel pretty good,’’ said the easygoing Byrum, who has lived in Scottsdale “in the same house’’ for the past 20 years.
“All I know is that after it was over, and I had won, it felt good from virtually every possible angle.’’
This has been a season of change for Byrum if for no other reason than he’s now a 50-year-old senior and eligible to also play on the Champions Tour. A winner twice on the Nationwide and once on the PGA Tour, Byrum has tried the Champions this season on two occasions.
“Unfortunately, without any real success,’’ Byrum pointed out. “I played in the Senior PGA (Championship) and missed the cut (77-77) after playing in my first Champions Tour event down in the Dominican Republic (in March).
“That’s the thing about the Champions, when you play in a regular event everybody makes the cut, so I think I made like $6,000 for being down the list. Admittedly, I’d like to play more on the Champions, but if you don’t have (exempt status) it’s just hard to play your way onto that tour. So I can’t give up my real job at the Golf Channel to try and go out there and make a go at it.’’
That’s why the Arizona Open was so appealing to Byrum. It was contested in his hometown, he had a couple of weeks off because of the U.S. Open, and his game was starting to come around to the point that he wanted to test it.
“I have a lot of friends at Desert Mountain, I saw where they were hosting (the Arizona Open), and I asked the Southwest Section (of the PGA) for an exemption,’’ said Byrum, who grew up in the small town of Onida, S.D., and played his college golf at New Mexico.
“It certainly got the juices flowing again, as there is no substitute for competitive golf. Even more than that, I had a blast.’’
Byrum said he “wasn’t sure what to think’’ when he plunked down his entry fee. Hey, TV guys like Ian Baker-Finch, Brandel Chamblee and Gary McCord occasionally step out from behind the microphone even if McCord is the only one who has done it regularly and successfully.
“That would be a wonderful thing to have Gary McCord’s life,’’ Byrum said with a laugh in reference to the CBS broadcaster, who actually has won several times on the Champions Tour. “But for me it’s hard to give up broadcasting a tournament so I can go play golf.
“But since I had some time, I thought the Arizona Open would be a good fit. I was playing some pretty good casual golf at the time, and my short game was really starting to come around.’’
Byrum watched through the first two rounds on the Apache Course as long-time SWPGA standout Greg Avant of Lone Tree Golf Club in Scottsdale topped the leader board. But after starting his final round of the 54-hole tournament just off the lead, Byrum made a bold statement with back-to-back birdies at No. 9 and 10 followed by an eagle at the 11th hole.
“I knew I was in the ball game, and the eagle really did it for me,’’ said Byrum, who shot 6-under 66 on that final round June 13 to win by two shots over Avant at 13-under 203.
“The good news was I hit the ball very solidly every day, and my putting got better as the week went on. Even when I felt the nerves kick in at the end, I kept putting well. And it was a great reminder for me about how great this game really is, especially when you’re in the hunt.’’
Did that brief moment of success get him pondering a return to the game and pursuing the Champions Tour full-time?
“Not even for a minute,’’ Byrum said, chuckling at the thought. “I’ve got such a great job, and even though I’m a road warrior, it works out well for me and my family in that I’m home at one point or another pretty much every week.
“Most of the time, I fly out on Wednesdays to wherever the tournament is, and then fly home to Scottsdale on Sunday nights or Monday mornings depending on what city we’re in. Plus, I get the opportunity to work with such outstanding people. So, ‘no, definitely,’ I’m not thinking of giving up my job in TV.’’
Naturally, a lot of those people that Byrum works with had to get their two cents in even if his surprising victory went somewhat unnoticed by the local television stations and newspaper(s) in the Valley. Maybe it was the U.S. Open on the horizon, or maybe it was because few media outlets in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area still cover the game on a regular basis.
“Yeah, I guess it was pretty much under the radar (in Scottsdale), but I was TRYING to fly under the radar, really,’’ he said. “It’s just hard to keep (winning the Arizona Open) under the radar from people who are in the business of golf.
“Guys who love golf always know, and by the first of the week I was getting text messages, emails and voicemails giving me a lot of grief for winning on my week off. Mostly, it was those guys at the Golf Channel who can really appreciate what I did.’’
Byrum certainly is well-respected by his peers. His sidekick on the Nationwide Tour, former Chandler resident Jerry Foltz, once called Byrum “the best golf broadcaster not with a major network.’’
“Curt is smooth on the air, and has a great voice. He’s cool and calm,’’ Foltz noted. “And Curt knows his stuff because he does his homework.’’
Byrum always is prepared, and while he’s no comedian in the booth, he usually delivers sound advice. Not that it’s a requirement, but he is respected by those he reports on.
“Nobody can be David Feherty, and we don’t try to be,’’ explained Byrum, who started working for the Golf Channel about 10 years ago shortly after he ended 20 years of playing on the PGA (15 years) and Nationwide (five years) tours.
“I do like working with Foltzy, because he’s got a great sense of humor and we have fun. But just as important, we try to bring our best efforts every time we go on the air; to tell it like we see it.’’
As for which tour is the best to cover, well, they all have their strong points, Byrum noted.
“That’s a real tough question, because there’s something about each one of them that stands out and I like a lot,’’ said Bryum, who hasn’t played regularly on any tour in 10 years.
“On one hand I like to see the young guys coming up on the Nationwide, like Lucas Glover did a few years back when he won at Phoenix (2003 Gila River Classic). I guess the PGA Tour is a lot more energy. The quality of golf on the PGA Tour will just blow you away. The Champions Tour also is a lot of enjoyment for me, because those are the guys I used to play against. That and you’ve got the legendary ones who occasionally play out there, and that’s pretty cool, too.’’
Speaking of the past, Byrum said it isn’t lost on him that this is the 20th anniversary of his last win on the PGA Tour. And, yes, he doesn’t remember the name of the golf course, but he does remember how much the check was for his one and only win in the big leagues.
“It kills me every time I think about it,’’ Byrum said good-naturedly of his victory over Brian Tennyson and Bill Britton, which came seven weeks to the day after his little brother, Tom Byrum, won the 1989 Kemper Open.
“The check was for $126,000, a far cry from the $1 million or so they get these days for winning. I mean, Ricky Barnes just got $550,000 for a three-way tie for second in the U.S. Open.’’
Fortunately for Byrum, he depends on his broadcasting skills in golf rather than his driving and putting. And he loves his split schedule of working 26 weeks a year on all three men’s tours, “something that keeps it really fresh for me.’’
Shoot, Byrum didn’t even complain when the check he got for winning the Arizona Open — $6,500 — was a far cry from the $20,000 first-prize check the tournament paid out in 2008. Alas, the Arizona Open was a victim of the struggling economy, as long-time title sponsor AT&T Wireless pulled out this year.
“I feel bad for (the Southwest Section) more than I feel bad for me,’’ Byrum said. “I really didn’t tee it up for the money but more just to see how I could complete.
“So to me, the win and the way I went about it meant way more than the money ever could.’’
Which is why, in a nutshell, Curt Byrum remains such a good guy.