Reflections On A Golf Odyssey


Byron Smith looks like a conventional modern tour pro -- southern Californian, a youthful 33, trim, good-looking and well-tailored. The kind of un-famous player casual watchers of tournament golf used to call a "clone."

After he closed with 63-66 to win the Tour's Rex Hospital Open by four strokes on Sunday, Smith stood before three packed grandstands that served as respectable facsimiles of PGA Tour skyboxes and gave an earnest but conventionally uninspired victor's speech and collected the biggest check of his life, $112,500.

But a few minutes later, the intimacy that makes the Tour an underrated place to mine the real stuff of playing golf for a living was on display. Smith popped open a beer, leaned back in a chair, and in a scene that would have given Dan Jenkins a vivid flashback to the 1950s, revealed to the three reporters sitting close by his journey in golf.

As with just about any such examination of a tournament player, it was uniquely and intriguingly individual. Smith began playing at the age of 3 in Palm Desert, grew up with neighbor John Cook as mentor, then attended Pepperdine, where, after two unsuccessful years on the golf team, he quit to concentrate on his studies in philosophy. "Golf became a long-lost memory," he said.

Over the years touring pros have professed an affinity for Ayn Rand's "virtue of selfishness" doctrine, or quoted Socrates' "Know thyself" and Nietzche's "That which does not kill me makes me stronger." Tiger Woods once cited Descartes. But Smith went really deep, immersing himself in the labyrinthine work of existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre.

For his bachelor's thesis, Smith took on Sartre's arduous opus, "Being and Nothingness." Although he admits it was "like running your head through a wall," "I did it because I enjoyed it. At that time in my life, it meant a lot to me."

He focused on the philosopher's premise that confusing occupation with personal identity undermines one's capacity for humanity. When he returned to golf and turned pro two years after graduation, he discovered both the truth and the complexity of the concept.

"I believe in having balance in life," Smith said, adding that long term he is on the "Byron Nelson program" -- making enough money to buy a ranch and "see you never."

"It's true that what I do makes it hard to maintain relationships, but to be good enough as a tour pro I have to be a golfer through and through. If I don't do it properly, then what am I going to do? Go get a real job and start all over from scratch?

"The other thing is, playing tournament golf becomes a sanctuary. Of course there have been a lot of down times [Smith failed to advance through Q school eight times, and has toiled on minor tours all over the world]. But mostly when I'm playing, things make sense. I feel I can control stuff. The rest of life is tougher."

Through his 11 years as a pro, Smith has considered intellect and academic training an asset, but interestingly, after trial and error, he has decided that as a player it's important to turn the analytical part of his brain off (he's never consulted a sport psychologist).

"Philosophy taught me you need a stable way of thinking about things to have success, and after a lot of trial and error the one I've chosen is to try to be a dumb-jock golfer. Just aim and fire and keep things simple. To me, golf's not a mental game, it's a swing game. You work on your technique the right way until you can trust it in the toughest situations. It's like Ben Hogan said, 'A square clubface will do wonders for your attitude.' "

The spirit of Hogan, who 25 years ago agreed to lend his name to the original version of the developmental tour, still reigns among Smith's peers. The week-to-week training ground, with all the vicissitudes that following the sun entails, has proven a superior preparation for the PGA Tour than the more capricious Q school, with the big tour now trending discernibly younger.

"There's not a whole lot of difference between the level of play," says Smith, who with his victory is almost sure to be among the 25 players who will earn full playing privileges on the PGA Tour next year. "Of the guys that get out on the big tour next year, 10 of them, minimum, will be making a splash."

Based on his record, Smith wouldn't figure to be among them. But as the Tour will continue to show us, it's the clones who will surprise you most.