June 23, 2009

Ricky's Wild Ride

Long on promise and short on results, Ricky Barnes' career gets a boost from a record-setting near-miss at Bethpage

surprise ending: Barnes couldn't believe it when his birdie putt refused to drop Monday on No. 18 as he closed with a 76 to finish T-2, two back.

surprise ending: Barnes couldn't believe it when his birdie putt refused to drop Monday on No. 18 as he closed with a 76 to finish T-2, two back.

Ricky Barnes' posse gathered around a table Monday afternoon in the clubhouse, all of the boys who flew in on the red-eye from the West Coast, his family, and across the table, his girlfriend, pro beach volleyball player Suzanne Stonebarger. With the 18th-green grandstands in the window behind him, Barnes took a seat, looked around and smiled with a sense of major accomplishment. There was no silver trophy on the hardwood table and no champagne flowing (only Amstel Light), but the gang from Northern California and Tucson was still planning a blowout party that night in New York City. The ugly 76 Barnes shot in the final round of the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black and the lead he had given up after hitting 31 of his first 36 greens in regulation while breaking the tournament's 36-hole scoring record, hadn't dampened his spirit. "I'd say there was a lot more good to come out of this week than bad," Barnes said before the cars pulled up to take them to Manhattan.

The night on the town was to celebrate the relaunch of Barnes' once promising career. A second-place finish and a silver medal in the Open—he tied with David Duval and Phil Mickelson at two-under 278, two back of winner Lucas Glover—were proof Barnes had improved his golf swing under the tutelage of Dean Reinmuth and had not lost his competitive instincts, which were never sharper than during his dominating performance at the 2002 U.S. Amateur but disappeared for six years after Barnes turned pro in 2003.

"Reinmuth has basically turned Ricky's career around," said Barnes' father, Bruce, the former UCLA and New England Patriots punter who was at Bethpage with wife Cathy, a third-grade teacher in Stockton, ­Calif. "His swing theories make sense to Ricky."

For the first 40 holes of the tournament, Barnes looked unbeatable. His 67-65 start broke the Open's halfway-scoring mark (133, set by Jim Furyk and Vijay Singh in 2003 at Olympia Fields), and an eagle on the fourth hole of the third round took him to 11 under par. Only three other players have reached double-digits under par in U.S. Open history.

The first signs of pressure came late Sunday afternoon as Barnes and Glover finished their third round. Barnes missed badly on a four-footer for par on the 18th. After a short break, the twosome, still paired, started their fourth round. Barnes bogeyed the opening hole, then hit an ugly snipe off the second tee into deep fescue. At that point USGA officials blew the horn, suspending the round because of darkness. Barnes and Reinmuth, who was in Vancouver, British Columbia, talked on the phone that night, but Barnes was still shaky when the round resumed Monday morning. Despite a miraculous recovery shot at the second, he made scrambling pars at Nos. 2 and 3. He failed to get up and down for birdie at the par-5 fourth, then went on a disastrous run of six bogeys in eight holes that seemingly killed his chances. Then he calmed down. From the 13th tee on, Barnes was one under par, but he had fallen too far back to catch Glover.

"He reverted back to the swing that has caused him problems," Reinmuth explained. "When you go into survival mode, the first instinct almost never goes away."

Those instincts—an overactive lower body—had Barnes sliding in front of the ball, producing the type of shots that had him mired in golf's minor leagues.

Nevertheless, last week revived memories of the charismatic Barnes of 2003, the one who made the most of the Masters and U.S. Open invitations he earned for winning the U.S. Amateur. He outplayed Tiger Woods when they were paired together in the first two rounds of the Masters and made the cut at Olympia Fields. ("He was the next Arnold Palmer," recalled his father. "He couldn't get out of the car without a photographer being there.") Strutting around Bethpage in his trendy railroad conductor's cap and plaid throwback pants that Johnny Miller said were "right out of my closet," Barnes displayed the sort of dash and confidence usually lacking in a 28-year-old rookie with only one top-50 finish since earning the 25th—and last—card off the 2008 Nationwide Tour money list.

After qualifying for the Open in Columbus, Ohio, Barnes rented a home near Bethpage. The better he played during the week, the more friends and family arrived, and by Sunday night there wasn't a couch that wasn't being slept on. The calming influence at the center of this hullabaloo was Barnes' 31-year-old brother Andy, the assistant golf coach at Arizona and Ricky's caddie for the week. He kept Ricky calm inside the ropes, made runs to the airport and got tickets for those coming into town.

Ricky Barnes

Andy, also a talented player, lost in the final of the 1994 U.S. Junior and qualified for the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where he led early in the first round before missing the cut. Ricky, who had just returned from a trip to Cancun with high school friends, wearing beads and cornrows, caddied for Andy that week. "He looked like a male version of Bo Derek in the movie '10,'" laughed Arizona golf coach Rick LaRose, who had given Barnes a scholarship.

But at least he was no longer a self-described chunkster. "He was the gold medal winner in the Snickers Olympics," LaRose said of Barnes during his high school years. "He looked like Jabba the Hutt." Barnes eventually transformed his body from a chubby 220 pounds to the muscular 200 pounds he is today.

Athleticism is in his genes. In college Bruce once punted a ball 75 yards against Michigan, and in the NFL he was awarded a game ball from his Patriot teammates after a great day of kicking against the Chicago Bears in 1973. Yet it wasn't football that Bruce's sons gravitated to, but another game he played: golf.

Ricky Barnes

Andy recalls family rounds at Elkhorn GC in Stockton. "He'd drop us off at 150 yards and tell us to meet him on the green," said Andy. "Dad never taught us mechanics. About the only thing he said was, 'Keep your head down.' "

Cathy Barnes still runs seven miles a day and is in her 21st year of teaching third grade at Victory Elementary in one of Stockton's tougher school districts. "We come from a blue-collar background," said Andy, whose parents celebrated their 35th anniversary during Monday's final round, one day after Bruce's 58th birthday. "My father is a food broker, and my mother a school teacher who quite honestly wouldn't want to teach anywhere else. She likes feeling as if she can make a difference."

On the road to Bethpage, Ricky experienced his share of low points, none worse than when Craig Kanada chipped-in on the final two holes of the 2006 Nationwide Tour Championship to steal the last tour card. But this year he has made nearly enough money to secure exempt status for 2010, and he has spots in next year's Masters and U.S. Open. Rookie of the year honors are also a possibility—six years later than he once envisioned.

"I'm a lot closer to where I need to be," Barnes said.

And then it was time to go. The bright lights of the big city were waiting.