Sara Byrne – From Douglas to Miami

John Craven

Sara Byrne

The Irish international’s game has been transformed since making the move Stateside with a KPMG Women’s Irish Open debut to come, as well as a hopeful switch to the pro ranks in 2024. By John Craven

There’s no rest for the wickedly talented international golfers on the Irish amateur scene, and Sara Byrne is no exception. Just four days after capturing her second Irish Women’s Close title, Byrne took my call from Sweden, fresh off a one-under par opening round 71 at the LET Access Series tournament at Fullerö Golfklubb.

If you don’t ask, you don’t get and Byrne had emailed Series organisers in January looking for an invite; the first tentative steps towards a possible career in the pro ranks once her time is up at the University of Miami next year.


“I’m thinking about turning pro next year and was looking into Q-School and getting some sort of status on the Ladies European Tour,” Byrne explains.

“If you play in a few LET Access Series events, maybe make the cut and play pretty well in them, it gives you the same status as making it to Final Stage at Q-School. I was thinking about playing Q-School as an amateur this summer anyway to get the experience but I decided to play these events instead.

“So this week is more of a learning experience. I have no expectations, I’m just going out and playing and just trying to get a feel for it.

“I’m asking loads of questions of the pros I’m playing with. Just things like how the tournaments work, if these are the courses they usually play, what the standard of golf is like, how many tournaments a year they play and things like that.

“Obviously it’s just the Access Tour and not the Main Tour but knowing that my golf isn’t too far away from the standard there is definitely encouraging.”

Byrne is certainly not one to get too far ahead of herself but having watched her game steadily improve with each passing year, it’s hard not to harbour some level of excitement for how things are trending.

A proud product of Douglas Golf Club in Cork, Byrne always dared to dream that she could carve out a career as a professional golfer, but a sense of reality never allowed those dreams to run away from her.

A highly-promising teenager who captured the Munster Girls’ title in 2017 before earning a call-up to the Junior Vagliano Trophy side, Byrne’s breakthrough victory arrived a year later at Enniscrone when the then 17-year old beat Malone’s Louise Coffey 2&1 in the final of the Women’s Irish Close.

At the time it was Byrne’s crowning achievement by a distance and while thoughts of grander stages burned brightly in the background, a maiden major women’s title meant far more practical, and prioritised goals had been ticked off in the interim.

“It was always a dream of mine to go pro. It was always in the back of my head, I just didn’t know if it was possible,” Byrne says.

“My biggest goal back then was just to get a world ranking, to get on WAGR, and I won the Close in 2018 and I got a ranking so I was chuffed with that.

“What was more in my head then was to just get a college and a chance to go to the States.
“I suppose I always had it in my head to go to college and turn pro but I didn’t know if it was realistic or not.”

If Byrne craved the opportunity to go to college in America, it wouldn’t be for a lack of offers that she’d pass up the chance. Hoping for just one possibly life-altering phone call, Byrne’s line was hopping with 19 as the timing of a rich run of form coincided with September’s recruitment drive across the Atlantic.

“My timing was pretty good to be fair,” Byrne remembers. “I won the Close and got on WAGR in July. Then played a few events and played well, improved my ranking and by the time September rolled around, all the colleges were able to get onto me, so it was great how it worked out.”
With Byrne’s signature in high demand, all that was left to do was whittle down her options. Byrne narrowed them down to three.

“It was definitely a bit overwhelming but after visiting a few of them, as soon as I stepped on campus at Miami I knew this was where I was going,” Byrne beams.

“We used to have a house in Orlando for about ten years and we used to go over and back every year when I was growing up so Florida felt a little bit like home to be honest, which was really nice.
“Then the college campus is unreal, it’s so pretty, and add the weather for golf as well. They have no indoor facilities because they don’t need them, it’s like 30 degrees every day, and I hate indoor facilities anyway. I love hitting off grass so that was a big thing for me too.”

Byrne would embark on a degree in Accounting and Finance, trading Douglas for Miami in what was initially a massive culture shock for the starry-eyed teen.

“God, it definitely took a bit of adjusting. Miami is the total opposite to Cork city,” Byrne laughs.
“But I absolutely love it. I acclimatised to the weather straight away and I’ve made so many great friends.”

If there was one thing she missed – something Byrne could transplant from home, outside of friends and family, she doesn’t hesitate. “Food, definitely,” she laughs. “The food in America can be so processed so it’s nice to come home to a roast chicken dinner – you don’t get anything like it over there!”

Between school, practice and travelling to and from events, Byrne has little time for much else, and while she tries to let her hair down at the beach when the opportunity allows, such has been her play of 2023 that the proud Corkonian’s schedule has been jam-packed. The Hurricanes as a team might’ve struggled to compete this year but as an individual, Byrne has excelled, playing her way to the NCAA Division 1 Women’s Golf Championships in Arizona in May for an experience she’ll never forget.

“That was honestly unbelievable,” Byrne says. “Obviously my team didn’t have a great year but my spring season individually was fantastic, I was really, really happy with it, played pretty solid and qualified for Regionals.

“I came third there and managed to qualify for Nationals. I never really understood how big of a deal Nationals were until I actually got there and then you realise this is the tournament you want to be playing every year.

“Just the standard of the golf course, the organisation, the way you’re treated, it’s like you’re competing at a Major as a pro. It was special. College sport in America is nearly as big as professional sports so to have that experience was unbelievable.”

It’s not just that it feels like a professionally conducted event, it plays like one too. After four rounds at Grayhawk Country Club, Rose Zhang’s name topped the board. Having usurped Leona Maguire’s longstanding record of 135 weeks spent atop the women’s amateur rankings, Zhang would turn pro in June with a lofty reputation. Sure enough, the American would capture her first LPGA Tour title on debut at the Mizuho.

“She was around the place alright,” Byrne laughs. “It’s just incredible to watch her. Honestly, she just makes the game look so simple. She manages to make it look easy.

“It was no surprise to see her off winning on the LPGA Tour so quickly. She’s just really, really good and to play the same tournament as her was definitely motivating.”

Byrne’s own performances this year have no doubt inspired young girls and boys in Douglas and beyond. The third year Sophomore just earned All-ACC Academic Team honours for the second time in her career and while so much of that is due to her own relentless work ethic, Byrne points to the arrival of Head Coach Janice Olivencia and Assistant Marcelo Huarte last summer for sparking a serious upturn in fortunes.

“They’ve changed my game,” Byrne says. “There were a few technical things that they made pretty simple. They worked a lot on the mental side with me too and I’ve probably improved the most with that.

“It’s stuff like staying present. Disassociating from your score. Adopting a care-free approach so if you have a bad hole, who cares, if you have a good hole, who cares, move on.

“On top of that, we worked to get my game in a really strong technical position so it’s just about going out there and playing freely, and just letting it happen.”

Byrne’s enviable laissez-faire approach to the game has translated swiftly into results but it was her victory at the Irish Women’s Close in June – five years since she claimed the title as a 17-year old – that illustrated just how far she’s come.

“Looking back on 2018, I don’t even believe it was me,” she says.

“I look back and see two very different people, and two very different golfers as well! Comparing the golf I played this year to win to the golf I played in 2018, I look back and wonder how I ever won it to be honest.

“The standard this year was insane so it’s different in all aspects.”

At the fourth time of trying, and in a repeat of last year’s finale, Byrne would finally get one over on great friend and rival, Beth Coulter in the final, needing five birdies to get the job done in Connemara.

“We’ve played each other in finals a lot at this stage,” says Byrne. “It was nice to finally get over the line against her though.

“Me and Beth always enjoy playing against each other. We also have great matches and great fun but it was nice to come out on the right side of it this time.”

Videos would soon emerge of a hero’s homecoming as a disbelieving Byrne returned with the trophy to Douglas.

“I’d say the whole golf club was sitting in the clubhouse waiting for me to come home,” she says. “It was insane, and so nice to be able to come back and celebrate with the whole club.
“I wasn’t expecting that many people to be there. The place was full to the brim.

“Douglas has a great history with really strong players, both men and women, and everyone is so supportive. No matter where you’re going you’ll always get a few texts of encouragement and it’s just a great place to be part of.

“Obviously I don’t get to spend that much time there anymore being on the road but it’s great to enjoy nights like the other night, being back with the cup and being able to celebrate it with everyone.”

Byrne would’ve then dearly loved to link back up with Coulter once more as the Arizona State star headed for Vagliano Trophy duty as Byrne boarded for Sweden.

“I always hope for team selections like that,” Byrne says, having missed out on Maria Dunne’s subsequently beaten GB&I side. “I think I was borderline but I knew by the time the team was being selected that I hadn’t done enough in the past couple of months to get it. If anything, it just motivates me to work harder.

“Obviously I’m disappointed not to get it, as I would be missing out on any team selection, but I’m not down in the dumps about it either. It’s golf, it comes and goes. I’m playing in LET Access events now, I’ve other things going on so it’s not the end of the world.”

Far from downtrodden, not only is Byrne getting a taste for what the future might hold on the LET but another dream is about to come true, this time much closer to home after victory at the Close guaranteed Byrne a KPMG Women’s Irish Open debut at Dromoland Castle in August.

“I’m so excited,” Byrne says. “I actually only recently played Dromoland for the first time and I was really impressed. I’ll definitely be going over and back as much as I can over the next few weeks to get to know it as well as I can before the tournament.

“I got the invite for it last year too but it was that bit later and with college commitments, I couldn’t play so I’m so excited to get the chance this year. It was very much a top goal for this summer so I can take a bit of a breather now that I have it and I can’t wait to experience it all for the first time in August.”

As for what the long-term future holds, again, Byrne, wise beyond her years, refuses to look too far ahead.

“I’m not 100% sure, I’ve no set plan just because golf is so fickle – you don’t know where your game is going to be in a year,” she says.

“Plan A for the minute is to graduate college. I might try play a summer season as an amateur and turn pro by the end of next year with my degree in the pocket.”

That sounds like as good a plan as any, and the way Byrne is trending, having eventually finished a brilliant T6 in that first Access Series pro event in Sweden, let’s hope the degree in Accounting will come in handy when she’s trying to balance her books as a member of the LPGA Tour.

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