Cork to Miami: Sara Byrne has journey to the top mapped out
The 17-year-old Cork schoolgirl plays off +1 and is looking to follow Leona Maguire
Sara Byrne plays from the rough at the 14th hole during the final of the 2018 Irish Women’s Close Amateur Championship at Enniscrone Golf Club. Photo: Pat Cashman
Like the Rory bounce or the Sergio swagger, she’s got her own subtle weather vane.
Whenever Sara Byrne’s dad Derek is not caddying for her and wants to know how she’s going, he looks immediately at her head.
“When the ponytail is going up and down things are going good, but when it goes side to side, not so great!” he says with a chuckle.
It was pretty perky last June when, just turned 17, the Cork schoolgirl won the coveted Irish Women’s Close, joining an illustrious list of recent teenage winners like the Maguire twins and Olivia Mehaffey.
That’s an impressive barometer which could add pressure to young shoulders but, after her breakthrough season, Byrne says it has actually done the opposite.
“A lot of pressure has gone off me now that I’ve got my world ranking and my college sorted,” she insists.
“Before I used to go out and you’d feel the eyes of college coaches watching you and not want to hit a bad shot. You were conscious to finish top 16 in a tournament to get a world ranking and, with teams, you’d have selectors watching you.
“But that’s good too,” she says cheerfully, “because, if you can’t play in front of selectors you can’t play in front of big crowds.”
Byrne, who has been part of the ILGU’s Horizon Programme (for talented juniors), is infectiously bubbly, yet admits that when she was younger she was something of a closet golfer.
“I thought everyone would think I was weird because no one else played it, so I just said I did Irish dancing and camogie, which I did until I was around 10 or 11.
“There were no other girls up in the golf club and none of my friends played, but I kinda grew out of that. When I started getting good I told them,” she laughs.
A childhood spent going to the range with her dad and actually caddying for him when he won the Killarney Scratch Cup lit the spark.
When he persuaded Douglas to bend the rules and give her a handicap at age 10, two years early, she was hooked.
By the time she turned 12 her handicap matched her birthday. Now she plays off +1, lower even than Dad.
She has specialist swing, putting and strength and conditioning coaches and belts the driver 220 yards with a carry.
Juggling golf with study has its challenges and she has just moved to a grade school (Bruce College) where she will sit her seven-subject Leaving Cert in June 2020.
She admits a lot of work went into last year’s breakthrough – “I was in Transition Year but probably only in school about 50 to 60 days” – but the end justified the means.
She’s had scholarship offers from 19 American colleges and two made her short-list: the University of Miami and Louisville. Miami’s good academic record, and their coach Patti Rizzo, swung it and she’ll officially sign later this year.
“Patti is actually on the Seniors Tour at the minute so she kinda preps you for going on tour and everyone who goes to Miami turns pro,” Byrne explains nonchalantly.
The family home, about five minutes from Douglas GC, contains a video swing simulator, on which she practises two nights a-week once her homework is finished.
She goes to the Mardyke Arena after school three other days for fitness training, facilitated through UCC’s ‘Emerging Talent’ programme and, during Winter, spends four hours every Saturday and Sunday in Fota’s practice facility.
She returned from the Spanish Amateur last Autumn to a week of exams but the school is allowing her to sit early assessments this Summer so she can compete in the German Girls.
Her 2019 season starts in earnest this weekend (Friday April 5th-7th) at the Irish Girls Stroke Play in Roganstown (near Swords), a 100-plus field including under-18 talents from 15 different countries.
A week later she heads to the Munster Girls in Castletroy which has an extra carrot now as the ILGU, in a bid to attract bigger numbers to their junior interpros, is running them in conjunction with the junior ‘Faldo Series’ which means the eventual top four will get to compete in Abu Dhabi in November.
Mehaffey (21), from Banbridge and a junior in Arizona State University, won the Irish Girls three years in-a-row and is making more golf history this week.
She’s among the first women to compete in Augusta, albeit in a new amateur women’s competition where only those who make the final round will actually get to play on the ‘National’ course.
Byrne benefits from female mentors like Eavan Higgins (an Irish Close winner in 1993) and Kate McCann in Douglas.
She calls her favourite ball of fluff – a half-Pom, half Huskie – ‘Lexi’, after Lexi Thompson, the US star who turned pro when she was 15.
But she gives a telling reply when asked to name her ‘Dream Fourball’.
“Tiger anyway, he’s always been my number one. I’d love to play with Phil Mickelson, to see his short game in real life, and probably have Rory as well.”
What? No female players?
“Well you don’t really get to see much women’s golf on TV,” she explains.
“Of course I’d love to play with Leona and Olivia Mahaffey. I saw Leona play in the Women’s British Open when she was an amateur, and I got to see them both play and talked to them at the Vagliano when I was on the girls’ team.”
She may have talent and big dreams but Byrne is impressively realistic.
A guy in her club, who caddies on the women’s European Tour, tells her most players need to have part-time jobs and she monitors the prizemoney on the LET app on her phone.
“The winners are only getting about 14 grand compared to the millions they get on the men’s tour. A lot of people are saying ‘you’ll earn millions’ and I’m like ‘I’ll be lucky if I win anything to be honest!’
“But I love it so much and, in time, hopefully it will change and get more publicity. I am going to finish college and hopefully get a finance degree as a back-up plan. I’ll turn pro and try to get to Q-School and, if I can’t, I can still have a great amateur career like Maria Dunne. ”
“Her main goal is to make the Irish ladies (senior) team but if it doesn’t happen this year there’s no pressure,” Derek Byrne says.
“We’ve learned that the more you rush, the harder it gets. I just want her to go out and chill out this year on the golf course.
“She’s got the handicap down, got the big win, got world ranking points and got her US scholarship.
That’s been intense for the whole family but that’s done now, so let’s see what golf brings from an enjoyment point of view now.”