Sara Byrne has the wind in her sails and hopes to bow out of amateur golf in style

Ronan MacNamara

Sara Byrne

Ronan MacNamara

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The moment Sara Byrne stepped onto the University of Miami campus during a visit in 2018 she knew she was hooked

A Miami Hurricane at heart, Byrne caused a storm during her time in Florida particularly in her final year, winning twice and registering eight top-10 finishes including five top-5s along with breaking scoring records along the way.

After four years in the Green and Orange, she ended as one of the most decorated golfers in Miami’s history and she bowed out as a second team All-American.

“That was a nice cherry on top to finish out the collegiate career. It was a nice feeling to get that text from my coach,” explains Byrne.

“Probably the best four years of my life. I had the best time. What’s not to love about South Florida, especially in Miami? I met the best group of people; I had the best friends and obviously the golf was pretty good too.

“I was over the moon with the four years, particularly the last year and a half. I got everything that I needed out of Miami, so it was a great time.”

Byrne has been on a hot streak over the last eighteen months, earning a spot on the watch list for the ANNIKA Award which is usually presented to the top female golfer in Division 1.

In October, she set a new 54-hole scoring record of 19-under-par at the Hurricane Individual which is the third lowest in NCAA Women’s golf history. This spring, she was also named the Best Female Student-Athlete at Miami’s annual Hurricane Honors awards ceremony and earned a spot on the All-ACC women’s golf team.

For the first half of her collegiate career the Douglas star grew frustrated, fearing that her golf game had plateaued. A turning point in 2022 was the retirement of longtime Miami coach Patti Rizzo.

New coach Janice Olivencia came in and Byrne was determined to adopt the mindset that a change is as good as a rest. Driven to improve no matter what, she was prepared for some tough conversations with her new coach in order to reach the next level.

“I’m a hard worker. The amount I was practicing, I was getting a little bit frustrated that it wasn’t coming together on the course. We worked a lot mentally which was the glue that I needed. I was so much freer on the golf course and just took the pressure off,” Byrne continues.

“I love the challenge of competing. I want to overcome any challenge there is out there and just go for it.

“I knew the head coach coming in had spent such a long time in Florida as an assistant coach. The University of Florida have been very successful in their programme. I remember the first time I sat down with her when I got back to college for my third year, I was like ‘please help, I can’t seem to progress any further. I don’t know how to improve anymore, literally anything to make me better.’ And she did. It was tough to admit that I couldn’t do it on my own and that’s where the improvement came from. I was like a sponge, and I had great trust in her.”

Byrne admits that she can be stubborn at the best of times and part of her improvement was to develop her personality away from the golf course. As the lone senior on the Miami golf team last season – a team that also included Clandeboye freshman Rebekah Gardner – she strived to set an example for her teammates.

“I would be quite a headstrong person and think that what I am doing is always right, so the first step was admitting that I’m not right. I needed to take account of how I was feeling, carrying myself and reacting to things. It wasn’t just about improving my golf game; it was about improving myself as a person outside of golf. It wasn’t the easiest thing to do but I was just so stuck with my golf game not progressing the way I wanted it to be. I just said, ‘I will do anything’. I just want to go pro and play golf. I had a determination to get better.”

Byrne’s move to Miami happened very quickly. Spotted by a programme scout at the German Girls Championship in 2017, she executed a tricky bunker shot beautifully which prompted the onlooking coach to follow her for a few more holes. He was as convinced about her talents as was she about the university.

“I played the German Girls in 2017 and they had actually watched me play. I hadn’t really thought about Miami or anything like that, so I looked into it and I saw the assistant coach from there watching me.

“I visited in fifth year of secondary school. I didn’t see any of the facilities but the second I stepped on campus I knew I would be going here. I did not want to be going anywhere else, so I cancelled other trips to other colleges!”

A terrific college career was capped off when she was named female athlete of the year at her graduation ceremony.

“When my name got called out for female athlete of the year, I was shaking, I was like ‘wow’. Just because women’s golf wouldn’t be the biggest [sport] in such an athletic college like Miami. So, to win the award was a great recognition.”

The 23-year-old ended her final collegiate season at the Regional Championships and after a well-deserved break, she feels like she is starting a new season as she prepares for some major championships in Ireland, including Friday’s Palmer Cup in Lahinch.

“The Palmer Cup will be amazing,” says Byrne, who is eyeing up some final silverware before turning professional in September.

“I have time to prep for the Palmer Cup, then hopefully play in the European Team Championships. August then will be the busiest month ever, Home Internationals and then if all goes well Curtis Cup, LPGA Q-School. September comes and hopefully the professional debut arrives.”

When September rolls around, Byrne will be the latest in a rapidly emerging crop of young players to turn professional after one of her close friends Lauren Walsh entered the paid ranks last year. Walsh has settled well into life on the Ladies European Tour while Aine Donegan, Beth Coulter and Anna Foster are excelling in the amateur ranks.

“You can see women’s golf and girls’ golf is getting bigger every year. Seeing Leona on TV, it’s only going to get bigger. Golf Ireland do a great job with that too. We already have Lauren out there and hopefully I can join her and the other girls Aine, Beth and Anna Foster can come through,” explains Byrne who is already trying to inspire the next generation in Cork.

“Hopefully we have a bright future ahead and we can get younger girls watching us all on TV and get the game growing as quick as possible. It’s cool to be a part of that. I had a clinic in Douglas and 15 to 18 girls showed up and I was like ‘woah’ it was a lot more than it would have been when I was younger.

“Women’s sport in general is really popular. Women’s basketball in the US has exploded and that’s what I think will happen with golf here. Younger girls will have friends in school who play golf which will make it easier to stay at it.”

On her break between graduating from Miami and returning to competitive action, Byrne has been busy sorting out sponsorship for when she turns professional, meaning she can focus on playing golf this summer without any outside distractions. She recently announced sponsorship partnerships with Forecaddie and Dromoland castle which will help immensely once she makes the move.

It’s always been a dream for Byrne to play professional golf but often dreams come without belief. For her, the realisation that she could make it at the top level came at last year’s KPMG Women’s Irish Open when she earned the low amateur prize at Dromoland Castle.

“It’s always been my dream. Growing up all I wanted to do was play golf,” she admits. “Going to college in the States was a stepping stone. Halfway through I knew I wasn’t good enough to turn pro so that’s where my mentality changed.

“The Irish Open was huge too, once I made the cut there it solidified that dream. I saw how it was all set up and I knew this is what I wanted to do, travel every week, I don’t care that it’s not going to be glamorous starting out.

“I know this is what I want to do. The last year has solidified it for me, and I know I can do this.

“The way it is run is like a major championship. It felt like an LPGA Tour event, the course, the set up, how we are treated, the fans, it feels like a major. It was so special to play in it and every player all over Europe says the Women’s Irish Open is the best week on the calendar.”

While she is taking inspiration and advice from Walsh, she is always comparing herself to the best of the best including Leona Maguire and Nelly Korda on the LPGA Tour.

“It’s always been Leona growing up in Ireland. Seeing what Nelly Korda is doing is pretty cool. All I want to do is compare myself to them and see what I need to improve on. Seeing Lauren out there on tour is mad, she is one of my best friends. I have played golf with her since I was 10 so it’s cool to see them out there and know that I can do it too.

“My head coach was on the European Tour for five or six years; I text Lauren to see how she’s getting on, and then I know a few girls on the LPGA. When it comes to Q-School and those things, I will definitely be asking a lot of people for advice.”

The Cork woman is determined to win on home soil again after capturing the 2023 Irish Women’s Close Championship.

Byrne also has huge aspirations to win as part of a team whether it be for Ireland at the European Team Championships, for Great Britain and Ireland at the Curtis Cup or later this month at the Palmer Cup where she will be one of four Irish representing the international side.

The Internationals, coached by Maynooth University’s Barry Fennelly will feature debutants Byrne and Lanigan while Ryan Griffin and Max Kennedy will be making their second appearances after impressing last year in Laurel Valley.

“When the email about potentially being selected came through, I knew it was something I really wanted and being in Lahinch is great, it’s the pinnacle team for collegiate golf, the best 24 international players in the collegiate system. It’s tough to get picked for it,” says Byrne.

“I put pressure on myself to get picked for the team but at the same time I thought ‘just free wheel it for another semester and see what happens’ and once I got the call that I was picked, it was very satisfying because I had been working so hard.”

The complexities of college golf mean that you never know when your last round will be. For Byrne that was at the Regional Championships. Miami were unable to progress to the NCAA Nationals meaning that she left behind a few friends without saying goodbye. She hopes to fill that void in Lahinch.

“I know so many of the players on the US team so it will be great to have them all over in Ireland to say a final goodbye because, in college golf, you never know when your last event will be in the post season. You never know the last time you will see everybody so it will be very cool to have the Palmer Cup as a final goodbye.”

With eyes on making the Irish team for the European Championships and the Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup team in September, Byrne is happy to have ticked off one of the three major team competitions she wanted to play in.

Lahinch is one of her favourite courses in Ireland and she hopes for a strong home support over the weekend.

“Hopefully we will have some sunshine to get the crowds out, that would be ideal, you never know what you’re going to get but hopefully we get decent weather. Lahinch is one of my favourite courses in Ireland. I have played there for years, and I absolutely love it so it’s going to be a very special week no matter what.”

Earning a spot on the Great Britain and Ireland Curtis Cup side in September would be the cherry on top of a glittering amateur career for Byrne. The Great Britain and Ireland side have lost the last three editions of the competition with the likes of Lauren Walsh and Annabel Wilson featuring.

GB&I last tasted success in the 2016 edition held at Dun Laoghaire Golf Club. Maria Dunne, Olivia Mehaffey and Leona Maguire all starred for the hosts that week.

Byrne was in attendance and since then she has always wanted a taste of it.

“I watched Maria Dunne, Olivia Mehaffey and Leona win it in Dun Laoghaire and that’s when I said I really wanted to play that in the future. It would be perfect to finish amateur golf at the Curtis Cup and turn pro. That’s one I really want to get.

“I can’t control what other people do or who other people pick, all I can do is keep playing golf and have a good summer and put myself in position to make the team.

“Winning would be a perfect ending to it all.”

Byrne’s amateur career to date has seen her put in some trojan work and that, combined with determination, has seen it come to fruition. In many ways her stubbornness was something she had to overcome to improve but it still remains one of her great strengths on the golf course.

A fiery competitor, she has made many highlights over the last two years. Two career highs stick out so far with an appearance for Ireland at the World Amateur Team Championships in the UAE last winter and winning the low amateur prize at the KPMG Women’s Irish Open, top of her list.

“I worked so hard to make that World Amateur Team Championship team. My coach and I put in a huge amount of work to try and get there so making the team was really satisfying,” she reflects with a smile.

“Getting the low amateur at the Women’s Irish Open was probably a highlight of the year just because of how special the week was. I had all my family down watching me, and some friends as well, so we could all celebrate together. That one kickstarted me into the final year of college so that is another highlight.”

Byrne has never wanted to do anything else. Hooked by golf from a young age she won’t let anything stand in her way as she prepares for life in the pro ranks.

Women’s golf in Ireland continues to trend upwards and it would come as no surprise to see Byrne walking the fairways alongside Walsh and Mehaffey on the Ladies European Tour with all three looking to join Maguire and Stephanie Meadow on the LPGA Tour in the future.


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