In October, Jonathan Byrd was playing for his job on the PGA Tour.
Sunday at the Wells Fargo Championship, Byrd is playing for his third trophy since then.
The 33-year-old former Clemson star brings a one-stroke lead over Pat Perez into the final round at Quail Hollow Club after riding a spectacular stretch of seven birdies in nine holes to the top of the leader board.
“Twelve months ago, I would never have thought that could have happened,” Byrd said early Saturday evening about the possibility of a third win in such a condensed time frame.
Digital Access for only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
“But now, the way my game is, why couldn’t it happen? I’m playing well. I feel like I have all the tools to play well. I don’t know if I’m going to win (today). I’m playing good enough to win but I’m just going to go out there and see what happens.”
On a day that began with a 90-minute fog delay, saw J.B. Holmes make a double eagle on the par-5 15th hole and included Phil Mickelson hitting two balls in the water on his way to a championship-dooming 74, Byrd shook off his early nerves on his way to the front.
Paired with Mickelson, who was going the wrong way, Byrd found himself at the center of a swirling Saturday, trying to keep his head down while doing his work while pulling a large gallery along.
“The environment was pretty distracting,” Byrd said. “Man, people were excited we were out there playing. Charlotte was pretty rocking and rolling out there and I had a hard time settling down.”
Walking from greens to tees, Byrd found himself getting the semi-rock star treatment from what was a largely Mickelson gallery. He’s not a high-five guy but he kept walking through the outstretched hands grabbing for a piece of him.
It’s a way of life for Mickelson. For Byrd, who doesn’t wear a golf glove and was worried about getting a slick spot of sunscreen on his hands, it was disconcerting.
“I was just uncomfortable, that many people kind of crammed on you,” Byrd said, smiling at the experience. “Phil is used to that. He just kind of flashes that smile and I just want to put my head down and keep walking.”
Once Byrd found his rhythm, it was a beautiful thing to watch. Starting at the par-5 seventh, Byrd – with his clean, powerful swing – made seven birdies in nine holes, shaking off more than nerves as he climbed the leader board.
A bogey at the ninth didn’t faze Byrd and the seven-foot par putt with a sweeping break at the 12th may have been his best putt of the day.
Looking for a single reason why Byrd is in front? Here it is: Through 54 holes, he’s needed only 79 putts.
What can’t be measured is how Byrd feels.
“It’s confidence and I feel really good inside 10 feet with my putter,” Byrd said. “I didn’t feel good starting the first few holes. (I told myself) just start playing a little more aggressive and it’ll be fine. You’re good enough to make it work.”
Worried last fall about keeping his full tour privileges in 2011 because of a flat season, Byrd secured his job by making a hole-in-one to beat Martin Laird and Cameron Percy in a sudden-death playoff in Las Vegas in October.
It earned Byrd a spot in the season-opening winners-only field at the Hyundai Tournament of Champions at Kapalua on Maui. He won there again and finds himself in position to do it again on a course that’s been more susceptible to low scoring than in most years due to soft conditions.
Perez, who made 18 birdies in the first 36 holes, couldn’t sustain that pace on Saturday though he closed with a deuce on the dangerous par-3 17th that served as a reminder he hadn’t gone anywhere despite not making a putt longer than five feet in the third round.
“When you’ve made 18 birdies the first two days, you’re thinking about making every putt you stand over,” Perez said. It was “maybe a fraction frustrating. I wouldn’t say irritating.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing Saturday was Mickelson’s retreat.
He started the third round three strokes behind and finished it eight back while running his total of balls in the water to five this week.