In an age when too many pro golfers rely on sports psychologists for attitude adjustments and others overthink every aspect of the game, Byron Smith provides an interesting contrast.
“I try to be a dumb-jock golfer,” Smith said Sunday. “Simplify it, treat it like a game, play it like a game.
“Show up and play. Aim and fire. Golf isn’t a mental game, it’s a swing game.”
That was Smith’s approach in the Rex Hospital Open and it worked. With a 5-under-par 66 at TPC Wakefield Plantation, he surged to a four-shot win and his first victory on the Web.com Tour.
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Smith, from Palm Desert, Calif., used a 63 Saturday to move into a tie for the third-round lead. He shook off an early bogey Sunday, started making birdies and couldn’t be caught, posting a 16-under 268 total for a $112,500 payday.
Harold Varner III, who played at East Carolina, and Scott Gardiner of Australia tied for second at 272. Varner, a tour rookie, had a final-round 70 and Gardiner a 69.
Brad Fritsch, a former Campbell golfer who lives in Holly Springs, earned a tie for fourth with a 66. Tony Finau, the cousin of Duke men’s basketball star Jabari Parker, and Roberto Diaz of Mexico also were at 273.
But the day – in truth, the weekend – belonged to Smith, 33, a deep thinker off the course who said he plays best when he doesn’t think too much when he’s on it.
Talk about an atypical tour pro. Smith intended to play four years of college golf for Pepperdine but had a falling out with his coach. He quit the team after his sophomore year, instead played bass guitar in a reggae/punk band and concentrated on his college major – philosophy.
“Golf was gone,” he said. “Didn’t watch it, didn’t play it. I wondered what I would do.”
His senior thesis, Smith said, was entitled “Jean-Paul Sartre, Being and Nothingness, Bad Faith.” Not many tour pros can say that.
Coaxed to take his golf clubs on a family vacation to British Columbia, Smith said he shot a 67 that rekindled his desire to play again. He soon told his father he planned to turn pro.
“He said, ‘A pro in what?’ ” Smith said.
A mentor, Smith said, was John Cook, who had a long PGA Tour career and now competes on the Champions Tour. Smith, in fact, took Cook’s oldest daughter to the senior prom in high school.
“John’s a master simplifier and I’ve learned a lot from him,” Smith said.
But Smith doggedly made his own way, playing the mini-tours in California, playing on PGA Tour Canada. He failed eight times in the PGA Tour qualifying school and in 2012 tried to qualify on Mondays for Web.com and PGA Tour events, missing out 15 straight times.
“I’ve hit multiple low points and I knew it would be a longer path for me,” he said.
Smith did win four times on PGA Tour Canada. His last victory before Sunday came in the 2011 Desert Dunes Classic.
Smith tied for 61st in the 2012 PGA Tour Q-School, gaining status on the Web.com Tour, and played 24 events last year. He closed 45th on the money list, taking a second in the WNB Classic.
Before this weekend, Smith had missed the cut in two of his previous three events this year. But everything came together at TPC Wakefield Plantation. As he put it, “My putter showed up.”
Varner, who grew up in Gastonia, held the lead after two rounds and was tied for the lead after 54 holes.
“All I wanted was a chance with nine holes to go, and I did,” Varner said. “I learned a lot, and I’m getting closer every day. Byron played really well.”
After being given the crystal trophy during a ceremony at the 18th green, Smith was asked by photographers to give it a kiss.
“Yeah, I can do that,” he said.
Later, Smith downed a celebratory beer and tried to put it in perspective.
“Golf’s absurd, a stupid game,” he said, smiling. “Absolutely absurd.”
But, sometimes, rewarding. Absolutely rewarding.