When Jonathan Byrd won the John Deere Classic last year, he became the only active player under 30 years old to have three PGA Tour victories. Byrd, who turned 30 in January, is one of the rising stars on tour. The 2002 PGA Tour rookie of the year has made the cut in 11 of 17 tournaments and has two top-10 finishes this season.
Byrd was introduced to golf and God at a young age, but it wasn’t until he was at Clemson that his passion for his sport and his faith fully formed. That faith has been tested recently. Byrd’s father Jim learned he had an aggressive form of brain cancer in October. His treatment has gone well and in April he walked Augusta National to watch his son play in the Masters.
I talked to him this week:
Were you always spiritual?
I grew up in a Christian home. My parents were Christians, Presbyterian. I wouldn’t consider myself being a Christian at a young age, but I was exposed to it. I always knew what the right thing to do was. I knew all the right answers if somebody had asked me. I knew it in my mind, but 12 inches down in my heart, I didn’t know it in my heart. I went to college and kind of had a wake-up call in college, living my life the way Jonathan Byrd wanted to live it. I didn’t like the path I was going down. I felt like God gave me the opportunity to see [what he should do.] He [God] wanted to be in control. He wanted to be number one in my life. I made a decision in college. It was not a religious decision or a spiritual decision. It was more of a decision to give Him control. It was more of a surrender.
Was it a gradual process or was there an incident that occurred?
It would definitely be gradual. I feel like God’s always at work. He’s always caring for us, working in the hearts of men and women, and it was definitely a gradual process. That was when I gave my life to Christ, became a Christian.
What year as this?
Sophomore year [at Clemson], so that was 1998.
You were involved with College Golf Fellowship, a Christian organization for college golfers, at that time. Did that influence you?
I got exposed to a couple different ministries. [Fellowship of Christian Athletes]. College Golf Fellowship was one. It was just kind of meeting some people that I saw what an authentic relationship with God is like. That’s just kind of the people God placed in my life. Those are the two ministries. I’m on the board of [directors of] College Golf Fellowship now. I just have a heart for college golfers.
Is that because CGF was important to you while you were at Clemson?
I just think college is a pivotal time in your life, when you have freedom, you’re away from home, and there’s so many people who are coming in your life, who are speaking truth in your life, and it’s not always true. It’s a time where you can go a lot of different directions. I have a heart for those guys because I want them to say, ‘Hey it’s 2,000 years after Jesus, but the Bible is still true and relevant in your life today.’ I want them to understand the Bible is true.
How much is your faith a part of your daily life?
It’s daily. I’ve got a [Bible] verse in my yardage book [that he carries in his back pocket].
Do you change verses each week or do you carry this one around with you at all times?
I don’t always do it. I was really encouraged by one of my buddies [PGA Tour player] Ben Crane this week and a couple weeks prior to really have a verse for the week and just kind of meditate on it all week.
What is the verse?
Let your light shine for men that they may see your good deeds and glorify God, who is in heaven. Matthew 5:16.
Why that one in particular?
I just think how we act out here, whether we’re playing good or whether we’re playing bad, it is important. I feel like we’re role models out here. I want to be able to handle good rounds and bad rounds the same way, just be able to have joy all the time. Having a verse like that kind of helps you keep perspective.
Does your faith in general help you keep perspective?
This life, golf’s a brutal game. Every week we’re judged by a score, and a score’s not necessarily whether we are playing good or not. Sometimes you’re playing good and you’re not scoring well. Sometimes you’re struggling. Sometimes just everything is going your way. If I let golf dictate whether I’m happy or whether I’m down it’s really hard out here. It’s really hard. So the more even keel I can keep it, and God helps me do that.
How prevalent is religion on the PGA Tour?
We have a Bible study on Wednesday nights every week. That’s pretty much our church on the road. We kind of organize it, the players, but we have a chaplain, two guys, a guy named Larry Moody and Dave Kreuger, who teach it. They come every week , one of them, every week of the year just about and they lead it. That’s our opportunity to go to church pretty much and have fellowship. Hopefully, we’re playing golf on Sundays, and we can’t go to church. But a lot of times we miss the cut and we can. That’s our link every week with other believers. I think there’s probably more men of faith, wives, caddies [on tour] than you would think out here. I think there’s a lot of guys who are at different stages of their faith.
Does God have a role in sports?
I think God has his hand in everything. Believing that God has his hand in everything we do and everything in this world, yes, He has a hand in sports, because He’s concerned and He cares for men and women everywhere. He’s a lot more concerned with my heart than He is with what I shoot or whether I miss a putt. I’ve really found that my opportunity to glorify God is a lot greater when I play poorly than when I play great. It’s easy to give God glory when you’re winning. It’s a lot harder when you’re struggling. He uses the tough times to give us the opportunity to give Him glory. He’s involved in everything.
When you say ‘tough times,’ do you also feel the same way about your father’s cancer?
Absolutely. You know God says He loves us and He cares for us. The fact that my dad has cancer or whether I’m struggling with golf doesn’t change it. God never changes. He’s an eternal being, whether we’re going through a tough time, or my dad has cancer, or whether somebody dies unexpectedly, it doesn’t change the fact that God loves us. It’s just a circumstance. I would say my dad feels blessed to be alive and thankful to be alive right now, and we’re thankful to have him, but it doesn’t change that cancer stinks. I wish my dad didn’t have to go through it.
Does your faith help you get through it?
Yeah. I tell people I look back on the whole experience with my dad, and it was a sweet time. People would say it was a horrible time and you wouldn’t ever want to go through it. I wouldn’t want to go through it again, but it was great. My family was really close. I was able to spend some good time with my dad. I got closer to my dad. You find out who your real friends are. At a time like that, you look back on it and you’re thankful for it. It’s really strange how God works through it. Like I said, I wouldn’t want it to happen again if I could choose, but I’m thankful for it.
Do you read the Bible regularly?
I try to every day. I don’t, but I try.
Have you always? Or is that something you started to do recently?
I’m realizing as I get older my need for it, my hunger for it, because it teaches, it rebukes, it encourages, it does all those things every day. I’m a dad of one little boy. I’ve got a little girl on the way in November. So as a dad I want to be able to teach my kids stuff. I want to know the Bible. So, yeah, I need it. I need it like I need food.
What is the most misunderstood part of your faith?
Easy answer. I think everybody confuses the Christian faith as doing the right thing, that it’s a list of: I can’t do this, I can’t do this, I can’t do this. It’s more of I can’t do all these things, that God is looking to rob us. I see a lot of guys who would see that. He’s a do-gooder. That’s not true. God wants to give us an abundant life. He wants to give us freedom. The more we obey Him and the more we do what He says, the better my life gets. It’s just completely the opposite effect. God is not out to rob us. It’s all about relationships. It’s not about what you do or what you don’t do.
Do you hear that do-gooder tag often?
Yeah. I always try to hang out with guys. I drink wine. I don’t profess to be [perfect]. There’s some guys that will say Bible study is full of hypocrites. Absolutely. If you’re not a hypocrite, you can’t come. I don’t profess to be anything.