Unlikely Leaders
Reasons to Root For Last Twosome

By Thomas Boswell
Monday, June 22, 2009


There isn't enough valium on earth for Ricky Barnes to win the U.S. Open. Or for that matter, for his old buddy Lucas Glover to grab the biggest prize in golf, either. But, all the same, they're going to be in the last twosome on Monday when our national championship is decided. They're not just ahead of the field. They're way ahead, tied for the lead with a five-shot margin over four players tied for third, including Phil Mickelson.

Golf is cruel, but this is ridiculous. What a setup. Why not just shackle Barnes and Glover together at the ankles, cover them in fire ants and say, "Good luck, boys." Sure, you're going to root for Phil. Fine. That's okay. So is everybody else with a pulse. But save some sympathy, please, for Barnes and Glover. And if one of them should, against all common sense and their own nerves, somehow win this Open, be gracious. Hug 'em.

Barnes, after winning the U.S. Amateur in '02, has found the professional life an utter misery, never winning any event, even on the minor league Nationwide Tour. Only this season has he scuffled his way onto the PGA Tour, the very last man to get his card, with a best finish so far of 47th. As for Glover, who's a solid Tour pro, he has only one career win and says, honestly, "I've never been here before. We'll see what happens. I don't think there are many people who think that I can or will do it. I'll keep my opinion to myself." You look loose, he was told. "It's an act," he said.

While a victory by Glover would be a mammoth upset, few can fathom what a victory by Barnes would mean. We're talking about a player here who is so far out of his element, so intent on keeping his emotions from flying apart, that he doesn't know what day it is. "It felt like Sunday out there today," said Barnes, referring to the atmosphere and pressure of a round in which he'd shot an erratic but admirable even-par 70 to back up his opening rounds of 67-65 -- 132 that set a new 36-hole Open record.

Then Barnes repeated, "It felt like Sunday."

It is Sunday, Ricky. The day before was Saturday. The next day will be Monday.

Some fans feel that players like these, who seem like clutter in a final pairing in a major tournament, are some kind of athletic refuse that needs to be swept away -- and almost always is -- to make room for the usual stars. But I'm just a sucker for them. I always take the bait. It's just one round of golf. Why couldn't one of them shoot a 70 or 71? That might be enough. Who's going to make up that much ground? This is a soft, wet Open course, not nearly as tough as most. Why couldn't they do it?

Then you hear them talk. And you study what golf has already put them through in their careers. You imagine how much it would mean to them to win -- far, far too much to help them play well. And you hold your breath, just hope they keep their dignity.

"I'm in good position. I shot even par with the lead in the Open," said Barnes, who had a brief six-shot lead in mid-round and once reached the stratosphere of 11 under par, making him the fourth player ever to have a double-digit under-par Open score. "Someone's going to have to come from behind to catch me."

No, no, no. Think smaller. Focus tighter. Borrow one of Phil's 17 sports psychologists. Above all, don't think the fatal words, "Win the U.S. Open." Oooops, too late. "I'd love to get back to Pebble Beach [for the '10 Open]. That was my first Open when I was 19," said Barnes. "Heck, why not go there as the U.S. Open champ?"

Only two factors make it conceivable that Barnes could actually win. First, he has enormous talent. Second, he has suffered. Whatever the lowest rung of golf's hell may be, he's been within sight of it.

In '02 while at Arizona, he won the U.S. Amateur. In '03 he won the Ben Hogan Award as the nation's top collegiate golfer. At the '03 Masters, he was low amateur, finished 17th and, when paired with Tiger Woods, trounced him by seven shots. Think that got noticed? Only by the whole sport, especially since Barnes has a physique like his father who'd played in the NFL and hits the ball a ton.

"I obviously thought after my college career I'd be out here right away," said Barnes, who kept missing, once by just one shot, getting on Tour. "It's humbled me. The last five years I've grown up. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't really [ticked] off the first two or three years, seeing other guys that you played with getting out there and playing well. The guys you know you competed against in every tournament and every step of the way. And you're struggling just to get conditional status on the Nationwide Tour."

In golf, a College Player of the Year gets no cushion, no edge, no support system when he enters the pro life. "The guy in basketball is going to get drafted in the top 10, get a three-year stint and settle down in the NBA, probably come off the bench and earn his stripes that way. But he's going to get guided," Barnes said. "Here you get kind of thrown into the pack of wolves and go to Q-school. You have to earn it. But I like it. The only guy I can blame is the guy in the mirror. And that's why I love this sport."

Actually, that's why you have to love golfers. There may be no fire in all of sports like the fire in the last round of a major golf championship. Yet they put themselves in it, long for it, even though they know how complete -- and destructive -- failure can be on that stage. It's 18 holes and you can't come out. If you lead the Open, then shoot 80, the whole world sees. And even the greats have had such mortifications, much less men like Barnes and Glover who have dared to rise above their supposed station. Once, Hale Irwin, who won three Opens, skied to 78 in the last round to torch his lead.

"Ricky and I have known each other forever -- junior golf, college golf. We're friends," Glover said. Yet they hadn't played together since the '02 Open here, back when Barnes was still a supernova. That's how totally he's disappeared.

Now, they make either a perfect final pairing or a perfect nightmare for each other. Will their old friendship and common enemy (the Open) bond them, calm them, inspire them? Or will they watch each other unravel, as final pairings have often done, and undermine each other? At least they start with old bonds. Glover's grandfather, like Barnes's dad, played in the NFL. While Glover is low-key, has a Southern drawl and is a voracious reader ("five books a week"), Barnes is intense, an all-sport fan and fitness freak. Can Glover's ease, and Tour experience, help Barnes feel at home on alien ground?

"We talked all the way around," said Barnes, as both overcame battles with nerves and squandered shots, yet both finished with 70s. Match that general level on Monday and one of them will almost certainly win. It seems possible. But is so very much to ask. Especially for Barnes. It's possible that no golfer has ever been more out of his element in terms of prior pro tour experience, yet in the proper place in terms of his pure talent.

"He earned his way out here," said Woods, who trails by seven, of Barnes. "He played the entire Tour on the Nationwide to get here. It's not like he qualified and got in, by luck, by chance."

At evening, as Barnes thought ahead, he didn't imagine an Open title. Instead, he said, "I made some mistakes. But I'll cherish the good things I did."

Hold that thought.

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