Football individual game tickets are now available! Buy now ➡️

Close Topbar
Leaving a Legacy: Sara Byrne

Leaving a Legacy: Sara Byrne

by Christy Cabrera Chirinos

This story originally appeared in the Spring 2024 edition of Hurricanes Magazine.

Editor’s note: Earlier this month, Sara Byrne completed her collegiate career after posting her eighth top-10 finish of the season when she carded a one-over-par score of 271 at Auburn Regional of the NCAA Championship. Byrne, who also graduated earlier this month, shot par-or-better in two of her last three rounds as a Hurricane, highlighted by a 71 on day two of the regional. She finished tied for seventh among all golfers.

CORAL GABLES, Fla. – Little by little, Sara Byrne is coming to terms with her new reality.

There was the moment she finished play at her final regular-season tournament. The day she received the cap and gown she donned at graduation. And then there have been the encouraging messages she’s tried to give her younger teammates, the teammates she knows will represent the Hurricanes while she begins her next chapter.

Each moment, each memory, is a reminder that her time in Coral Gables is coming to an end and that soon enough, she’ll have the opportunity to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a professional golfer.

Before that, though, Byrne did her best to make the most of her final weeks as a Hurricane.

One of her biggest hopes? That in those final weeks she left a legacy at Miami that will inspire her teammates to continue moving the Hurricanes forward long after she’s played her final round in orange and green.

“I feel like I can see myself in the girls that are here now. That was me before I went on to change the way I play the game,” said Byrne, who recorded five top-five finishes during the regular season. “I think it’s good for them to listen to someone who’s been through it, you know? It was a learning experience for me, too, so it’s been important to lead by example and keep reminding them that where they are now is where I was once. If they’re willing to make that change and listen to coaches and to be open-minded to work hard and be motivated, so many good things can happen.”

For Byrne, plenty of good things happened during her time at Miami.

The native of Douglas, Cork, Ireland is one of the most decorated golfers in program history.

In February, she was named the ACC Golfer of the Month for the second time in a season, becoming the first Hurricane to accomplish that feat. She earned a spot on the watch list for the ANNIKA Award, which is presented annually to the top Division I female golfer.

And in October, she added her name to both the Miami and NCAA women’s golf record books when she posted a 19-under-par score of 197 at the 54-hole Hurricane Invitational. That score ranks first in program history and is currently tied for the third-lowest individual 54-hole score 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.

“She capitalizes on the opportunity when it arises,” Hurricanes head golf coach Janice Olivencia said of Byrne. “There is 100 percent commitment once she’s inside the ropes and there’s really a sense of urgency now, understanding that this is the spring season, and she has to be on. … She wants to continue to get even better and that’s how good players become great players and great players become elite players. She’s already one of the best collegiate players in the nation, but she wants to be the best and to do that, she has to keep grinding, she has to keep moving. That doesn’t necessarily mean she has to reinvent the wheel, but she just needs to keep doing the little things that she does to continue to get better. She just has to keep pushing.”

Byrne, for her part, has embraced that challenge.

The senior has never been afraid to step out of her comfort zone, not when she took up the sport of golf after watching her father, Derek, play it in their native Ireland and not when she began climbing up the junior ranks and earned the opportunity to represent her country at tournaments throughout Europe.

It was during that time, after seeing the success of Irish golfers Leona Maguire and Olivia Mehaffey, who starred at Duke and Arizona State, respectively, that she began considering taking another big leap of faith: playing collegiately in the United States herself.

Byrne came to Miami on a recruiting visit in 2018 and knew she belonged in Coral Gables. But even that move – one she wanted to make – wasn’t easy given the fact her freshman year started in 2020, amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

Still, four years later, she recognizes how much that decision to come to Miami – despite the challenges – helped her development, both as a person and a golfer.

“To do that, during a worldwide pandemic, was definitely an experience unlike many others get to experience, for sure,” Byrne said. “But honestly, I think that it made me grow and mature a lot quicker. I was kind of thrown in the deep end a little bit and honestly, that is what made me mature and get this much out of my final year. It helped me to just know how much I would need to work, how much I would really need to practice and that helped give me the season that I had last year.”

While at Miami, Byrne faced another test – a coaching change.

Longtime Hurricanes golf coach Patti Rizzo retired in 2022, midway through Byrne’s career. Olivencia was named Miami’s new coach shortly thereafter and in her early meetings with Byrne tough conversations were had about the next steps the golfer wanted to take with her game.

To that point, Byrne had been playing well. She believed, though, she could be better.

She asked Olivencia – a former two-time All-American at Texas – how she could do that.

“It was such a pivotal moment for the new coaches to come in and give me a new perspective on everything. The timing just worked out,” Byrne said. “I got to kind of like a breaking point and was just like, ‘I need to get better, and I need to do it for myself, to feel content, to feel like I am really pushing.’ And Coach Janice is someone that really cares about developing players and developing people. I went to talk to her with such openness and willingness to learn and that was what really just took us to the next level. …

“I walked into the office, and I was like, ‘I need to change. Push me.’ And I was warned that even if I was willing, it still wouldn’t be easy. It would be hard. There were a lot of conversations and a lot of emotion, but I’m so thankful I got to experience having all those teaching moments and learning moments and getting called out and being just so accountable for everything that I was doing and being held to every single standard I asked them to hold me to.”

Added Olivencia, “There were really difficult conversations that we needed to have because she’s telling me all the things she wants to do and I’m like, ‘Well, you really ready for it?’ We knew we didn’t have much time with Sara, so we had to act quickly.”

The work Byrne did with Olivencia and former assistant coach Marcelo Huarte – now the head coach at South Alabama – paid off the way both the coach and the golfer hoped.

Byrne finished her junior season with 17 rounds of par-or-better golf and advanced to the NCAA championships after placing third with a two-under-par, three-round score of 214 at the NCAA Palm Beach Regional.

In 2023, she also posted five top-20 finishes while competing for Miami, won the AIG Irish Women’s Close, represented Ireland at the World Team Amateur Team Championship, was named the Irish Women’s Amateur of the Year for the second time in her career and yes, had her record-breaking day at the Hurricane Invitational.

But it wasn’t just her play on the course that changed.

As the lone senior on Miami’s roster, Byrne wanted to set an example for her teammates, five of whom are freshmen and sophomores who, like her, are Europeans playing far from home.

She wanted to show them what was possible, how they could reach their goals the way she had.

And she let her play and how she prepares set the tone.

“Attitude determines your direction and actions speak louder than words. Those are my two biggest things that I believe to my core and right now, Sara is doing exactly that. Her attitude is determining her direction,” Olivencia said. “She’s got the attitude of wanting to be the best collegiate golfer in the nation and that’s going to determine her direction. And it has determined her direction for the past year and a half. It will also determine the direction her teammates will take because they can see her results.

“When you can show a young team, ‘Look at what she’s doing. Look at her actions, her attitude, and her performance,’ they can see what she’s getting for all of it. … And little by little, these girls are understanding what it takes. There are some days she stays an hour after practice. Those are not things that are required. Those are things that if you want to be good and you want to be on that list [you have to do]. That’s the reason she’s on that list.”

Byrne knows that as the Hurricanes shift their focus to the postseason, it won’t be just her teammates that will be watching how she performs. Competitors will be tracking her progress. There are potential post-season awards to bring home and tournaments to win.

But she’s going to go out on the course and try to make that postseason as memorable as possible, not just for herself, but for the Hurricanes.

And she won’t be taking anything for granted in the process.

“I’m obviously proud of everything I’ve accomplished so far, all of that hard work and effort it’s taken. But there’s a little bit of a sigh of relief, too,” Byrne said. “It’s like, ‘Yeah, I can do this.’ I’ve done a lot in my amateur career, which is great, but I still have so much more that I want to achieve. It’s like, ‘Don’t take a step back. Don’t take your foot off the gas, even a little bit.’ I’ve achieved so much, but I want to achieve so much more. … Any tournament I go into, I want to go in and win it. So, that’s obviously going to be in my mind. That’s what I’m working toward.

“But I also want to just go out there and be free to just play golf and enjoy it and bring this team on with me. This is obviously most of their first time ever in a postseason, so I want to bring them on and have them experience it all. I want to finish this out exactly how I’ve been going out this last year, just keep the foot down and whatever happens, happens. But I’m going to give it my all.”

Her coach has no doubt that’s exactly what she’ll do – both in the postseason and beyond, when Byrne finally begins her professional career.

“What I would love to see from Sara is that she just goes out there and competes. There’s nothing to lose. At the end of the day…[trophies are] hoisted by people who just allow themselves to go out there and perform, so I want her to not hold anything back and use everything she’s got in her bag to put herself in the best position to succeed. … And I want her to be grateful for the moment. I want her to stay inspired by her own performance and understand the position she’s in. … At the end of the day, she just needs to be who she is and enjoy performing at the highest level.”