Sports, at their core, are a meritocracy requiring a combination of talent and effort that leads to success. Few athletes have applied this with quite as broad a brush as R.B. Clyburn III.
Clyburn, a 6-foot-7, 32-year-old from Cartersville, Georgia, qualified for the first time and competed in the 2021 U.S. Amateur this summer. All the collegiate All-American golfers and aspiring tour professionals there couldn’t fathom the path Clyburn took to reach Oakmont – a route that included playing Division I college football, professional basketball across three continents and a career blowing whistles as a college basketball official.
“It’s insanely amazing,” Clyburn said of his U.S. Amateur experience. “The fact I was there with those guys who are the best amateurs in the world and are about to become household names in a year or five … and I only play golf five months of the year full time.”
Golf was always Clyburn’s first love ever since his late father, Robert Beaty Clyburn Jr., introduced him to the game at Cartersville Country Club. But despite being the 2006 regional medalist his senior year at Cartersville High School – home of the NFL’s latest No. 1 draft pick Trevor Lawrence – golf was unlikely to earn him one of the precious few scholarships to play major college golf. With 81 scholarships to offer at every D-I school, football had better odds, so Clyburn joined the football team as a junior.
“I tried to play football to get college paid for and after college I can pursue golf with the money that was saved,” Clyburn said of the rationalization.
By the time Georgia Tech noticed Clyburn as a senior, it was all out of football scholarships to give. So Clyburn accepted an offer to be a preferred walk-on wide receiver for Chan Gailey’s Yellow Jackets. After Clyburn red-shirted his freshman year in 2007, Gailey was replaced by head coach Paul Johnson and his run-oriented, triple-option offense.
Clyburn stuck it out for a season under Johnson, but it was a tough fit for a backup wide receiver playing behind future NFL star Demaryius Thomas on the depth chart. Georgia Tech only had 74 completed passes in 2008 – 39 of them to Thomas. Clyburn saw action in seven games and had one career catch for 19 yards from Calvin Booker against Mississippi State. He did briefly have a 9-yard touchdown reception in the final minute against Duke. He caught the ball over the Blue Devils defensive back and got a foot down in the end zone. But it was overturned after review because the ball popped loose when they fell to the ground.
“It was kind of upsetting,” Clyburn said of the complete-the-process rule that cost him a lifetime highlight.
Clyburn gave up football after two-and-a-half seasons but stayed on to get his degree in business administration at Georgia Tech. He scratched his competitive itch playing intramural basketball and club volleyball. But he’d grown a lot – both physically and mentally – since he was a scrawny 6-foot-5, 185-pound high school kid and wondered if he might have a future in basketball.
“After football my body changed and grew a couple inches and could jump higher,” he said. “My frame and mindset kind of changed. … I had zero confidence in my sport abilities as a younger college player.”
After graduating in 2011, Clyburn went to a USA Select basketball tryout and, despite a badly sprained ankle, ended up making the team that traveled to Europe to audition against lower-level professional teams. Overseas programs might see a player they liked and offer contracts, and about a month in he got signed to play with the Derbyshire Arrows in Sheffield, England. When that season was over, he went to Australia to play with the Chelsea Gulls in the Big V (Victoria) Conference. All those months playing hoops near the Australian Sand Belt, he visited Royal Melbourne once when the course was closed for maintenance, “but I got a really nice putter headcover from the pro shop.”
Clyburn returned to England to play another season with the Mansfield Giants, where he was a star averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in 38 minutes per game. It was good enough to earn a tryout in 2014 for the NBA’s developmental D-league, where he made it into the draft pool. Waiting for a draft call that never came, his window to re-sign his overseas contract passed, bringing his basketball career to a quiet close.
“I got a real job in late November and moved back home with my parents,” he said.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do. I looked up ‘basketball officiating in Georgia’ and met a man who had contracts for private high schools.” – R.B. Clyburn
For extra cash he started refereeing flag football games in the local rec league and got coaxed into officiating 5-year-old girls’ basketball games. After moving to midtown Atlanta for his corporate job, his position got cut the next summer and he was out of work.
“I didn’t know what I was going to do,” Clyburn said. “I looked up ‘basketball officiating in Georgia’ and met a man who had contracts for private high schools.”
Next thing you know, Clyburn met guys who officiated college games and as a quick learner he developed a network of mentors who helped him move up the ranks. In the last few years, he officiated college games in the Southeastern, American Athletic, Sun Belt, Atlantic Sun, Big South and Southern conferences. In March, he worked his first NIT postseason game between Louisiana Tech and Western Kentucky.
His first competitive love, golf, however, took a back seat during a decade of playing football and basketball and pursuing a career in Atlanta, where he could afford to play little more than three to 10 times a year at public courses.
Then came the 2018 Masters, when Clyburn secured tickets to a practice round at Augusta National.
“You’re sitting there watching the best guys in the world chipping and hitting shots at Augusta,” he said. “Being a little older and more confident in what I can and cannot do, I’m watching these guys and thinking to myself, ‘I can do that.’ Without any air of arrogance, I was looking at them and I knew I had the talent to do that.”
So Clyburn left Augusta determined to start playing golf again. He rejoined Cartersville Country Club and started spending his offseason playing golf. While he soon got his game back in good enough order to shoot consistently in the low 60s, he realized taking that game into tournament situations was a different matter.
“I learned very quickly that the nerves of tournament golf were something I had to deal with,” Clyburn said. “Because I cared so much about it, it was very difficult.”
“Everybody has a pre-shot routine, but now I have a post-shot routine for me that allows me to first gather data and not outcome.” – R.B. Clyburn
Clyburn had some decent finishes in Georgia PGA section events, including low amateur as runner-up in the 2020 West Pines Open, but he struggled as the stakes got higher. In March 2021, he went to Florida to a U.S. Open local qualifier and wilted.
“The nerves hit me on No. 1 really, really bad and I five-putted for a 9,” he said. “I was playing great golf at the time and shot 81. My mom was like, ‘That’s not your golf game; that’s in between your ears.’”
Clyburn agreed, and decided to call close family friend Nick Fuller, a sports psychologist who runs a company called The Tactical Mind. Just a couple of hours on the phone with Fuller “kinda changed everything,” Clyburn said.
“He got me to one simple thought to focus on and not the what-ifs or where the ball might go or the trouble or pressure you’re under,” Clyburn said. “Just a simple way to calm and be in control of your own thoughts, then be able to re-focus on every golf shot.
“Everybody has a pre-shot routine, but now I have a post-shot routine for me that allows me to first gather data and not outcome. The second part is to forgive yourself, and that’s the most difficult part. And the third part is to set a new mission, a new mental thought so to speak.”
The psychology worked immediately. In short order, Clyburn qualified for the Georgia State Amateur and made the cut and then qualified for the U.S. Amateur, shooting 7-under (67-66) at the Capital City Club’s Crabapple course in Milton, Georgia to tie with Georgia Tech golfer Bartley Forrester for the fifth and final qualifying spot. Clyburn beat Forrester on the first playoff hole to secure his spot at Oakmont.
“A lot of really cool things happened this summer after that (session with Fuller),” Clyburn said.
The U.S. Amateur opened Clyburn’s eyes to a whole new world of possibilities in his golf future. Even though he didn’t reach the match play, he played his Oakmont round on Monday before rain softened the course and he beat the field average on one of the world’s hardest courses with a 77.
“Being there hit home that I can play with these guys; I’m meant to be here,” Clyburn said. “This isn’t some crazy fluke. I can play high-level golf and it gave me a confidence boost moving forward in tournaments. I want to get closer to the Tiger (Woods) mentality of ‘I’m the best person out here and I can beat everybody,’ rather than ‘I’m so happy to be here.’ That mentality changes, your scores are going to change.”
His basketball officiating career – as well as his new bride, Natalie Peterson, a former Division II basketball player at Lake Superior State – allows him a long offseason to focus on playing amateur golf to see how far he can go.
“I will, every year, try to do the U.S. Open, U.S. Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur and U.S. Four-ball,” Clyburn said. “This year was the first year I tried for state amateur and made it.”
Considering the entire spectrum of Clyburn’s athletic arc has involved qualifying his way into everything from college football to professional basketball to hoops officiating, his ambitious amateur golf goals merit watching.
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