If the golf writers had a pound for every time we have uttered the phrase, “now this lad could be our next big thing”, we could have bought the entire supply of AstraZeneca vaccines and still had a few bob left over for a couple of sleeves of Pro-V1s.
A decade ago, Banchory’s James Byrne was one of Scottish golf’s likely lads. But whatever happened to him?
An accomplished, highly-rated amateur before making the plunge into the pro game in 2011, Byrne had won the Scottish Boys’ Strokeplay title, was runner-up in the Amateur Championship and had a confident personality and purposeful stride that certainly made him look the part.
Golf, of course, has a habit of bringing you down to earth with the kind of painful dunt that would have made Icarus wince.
“I look back on things I said in the press or even to my mum and dad and think ‘could I really have been that self-confident?’,” he reflected. “You take a few knocks and you quickly lose that.”
Byrne played for GB&I in the 2011 Walker Cup victory over a US side featuring stellar talents like Jordan Spieth, Harris English and Patrick Cantlay.
“I like it when those US players win on tour as it makes our Walker Cup win look even better,” he said of the subsequent success the American boys went on to achieve.
“I played Harris English in the singles. He hit shots then that I thought ‘I can’t do that’. I was nowhere near that standard. Deep down, I thought I wouldn’t be a top player but I at least thought I could be a solid tour player.”
Byrne signed with management giant IMG and turned pro. Onwards and upwards? Not quite.
“I failed to get past stage one of the European Tour’s qualifying school and thought ‘s**t, what do I do now’?” he said.
The Far East, where his mother came from, provided something of a golfing home from home. Byrne joined the Asian Tour, enjoyed a couple of wins on their second-tier and would make annual ventures back to Europe to try to break on to the circuit here. It would become and frustrating and fruitless task, though.
“I just couldn’t get over the first hurdle of the qualifying school and when you get stuck there, man it’s brutal,” said the 31-year-old. “In your mind, stage one should be the easy stage and when you can’t even get through that it’s pretty demoralising. As each year passed, I put more and more pressure on myself.
“I was doing okay in Asia but, for whatever reason, you get to the point where you run out of patience and money. You’re living as cheaply as you can and trying to win enough to pay for the next event in the hope you’ll have that one big week. It’s not living the dream at all. Once it starts affecting your life, then it’s not worth it.”
Byrne effectively ended his touring life at the end of 2017.
“When I finished, I felt gutted for six months as I’d tried my best and was letting go of something I had held on to so tightly for years,” he said.
An opportunity to work with Bangkok-based apparel company Fenix, which is run by Aberdeen exile Michael Moir, kept him in the golf industry. The transition to the 9 to 5 was not easy, mind you.
“I’d never had a job other than playing golf and I spent most of my 20s trying to be a success and spending untold amounts of cash,” he said. “It’s a huge gamble on yourself. When you come out of that, you feel well behind the curve and think ‘what the hell am I doing?’. I now do retail, corporate sales, a bit of marketing. I’m finding my feet as I try to become a proper adult.”
Byrne, now happily married, looks on with admiration at the exploits of Scotland’s current bright young thing, Robert MacIntyre, who is chapping on the door of the world’s top 50 at just 24.
“He’s progressed every year and the confidence builds with that,” said Byrne. “It’s great to see. I wish I’d got on that upward spiral of positivity instead of a downward, negative trend. It’s funny, I got an email from Bob when he’d just turned pro asking about clothing deals. I said we couldn’t sponsor him because he wasn’t on the main tour at the time. Now look at him? My boss says, ‘he’s the one that got away’.”
Golf, as Byrne knows, has always been a game of what-ifs and might-have-beens.