June 7, 2007

My Shot: Miller Barber

Some precious insight from Mr. X on six decades as a professional golfer, observing everyone from Hogan to Palmer to Nicklaus to Mickelson

I wasn't the first Mr. X. George Bayer, the longest hitter on tour in the 1950s, had the nickname because he hit the ball so far. At the Hartford Open one year they had a long-drive contest on the first hole. George missed the fairway with all three of his drives. I had the longest drive in the fairway. Instantly I became Mr. X.

That's one version. The other is that Jim Ferree gave me the nickname because I never told anyone where I was going at night. I was a bachelor and a mystery man with many girlfriends in many cities—I didn't marry Karen until I was 39. It wasn't their business to know where I was going, so for a while they called me "007"—the James Bond movies were popular at the time. But my activities prompted Ferree to start referring to me as "The Mysterious Mr. X," and it really stuck.

Speaking of James Bond, I was a huge fan of the movies and was excited when I got to meet Sean Connery at Pebble Beach during the Crosby in 1970. Sean invited Ray Floyd, me and our wives over to play Troon the week before the British Open at St. Andrews. We played Troon on Friday and Saturday and had a wonderful time. I don't know who was more excited to be with Sean Connery, me or Karen. But on Sunday morning Sean called from the hotel lobby, very upset. I rushed down to meet him, and he had a very nasty letter from the RA, objecting to our conducting "an event" without giving them the opportunity to come out and officiate. There were four of us actually playing golf, but the RA viewed it as "an event." Sean was mortified that he'd upset them, and in fact it ruined the trip. I always thought the RA was very hard to understand.

Arnold Palmer is retiring, and I think it's a shame he wasn't able to play his best his last years on tour. Not only is there a generation of young people who never saw him in his prime, the generation before that never saw him in the '60s, when he was at his best. You see his swing on those old TV shows, and they hide the fact that he was a tremendous driver of the ball, long and incredibly straight. He had great touch and could just putt the eyes off it, was an excellent sand player, the whole package. Nobody wanted to win more than he did. Hey, he won 62 times on the PGA Tour. Seven majors.

They've taken away golf carts on the Champions Tour, which I think is a terrible mistake. Take Arnold. He's always refused to take a cart; he's a big proponent of walking. He feels it keeps you healthy, but I think it took 10 years off his career. Walking as much as he did, at his age, wears out your body something terrible.

I live in Scottsdale part of the year and know Phil Mickelson very well. For a long time I begged him to find a driver he could hit the fairway with, or do something to get the ball out there on short grass. Underneath that soft personality is one of the most stubborn people I've ever met in my life. But last year he played with control and had a super year. Then early this year he said, "I've decided to play like Vijay does. I'm going to hit it as far as I can, because if he's in the rough with a pitching wedge and I'm in the fairway with an 8-iron, I can't beat him." I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And he did go with that bombs-away style, and he went backward. What he did in winning the PGA Championship—play with control—I hope makes a permanent impression on him.

The 1969 Ryder Cup had an element of intrigue not everybody knows about. You've heard how Jack Nicklaus conceded the putt to Tony Jacklin on the last hole on the last day, the competition ending up tied. [The U.S., as the defending champion, retained the Cup.] Jack has said that he conceded the putt purely out of sportsmanship, but I was on the team and none of us players believed that. See, our captain that year was Sam Snead. He sat Jack down in the morning the first day and in the afternoon the second day because he didn't want Jack to get worn out. Jack wanted to play and was upset about being benched. Most of us believe Jack conceded the putt at least in part to get back at Sam. And it worked, because behind the scenes Sam was furious that Jack didn't make Jacklin hole that two-footer.

Jack was the greatest champion ever, although the best ball-striker and shotmaker I ever saw was Sam. There was no shot Sam couldn't hit on demand, and I saw him hit them all because I was his partner hundreds of times in practice rounds. Sam took a $10 nassau every bit as seriously as he did a tournament, and he hated to lose. If you played a match in the morning and got beat, it ruined his day. If you played poorly, you heard about it from Sam. The good news is, Sam didn't lose very often.

Ryder Cup pressure is something. In 1969 I was at the peak of my game and was paired in the alternate-shot matches with Ray Floyd. We talked strategy and decided that Ray would play first on the odd-numbered holes, and I'd play the even-numbered holes, where most of the par 3s fell. Well, they play the national anthem and Ray is crying. I'm crying, too, but now the song ends and it's time to play. Ray says, "I can't hit it." I said, "Ray, you've got to hit first, otherwise it'll foul up our whole strategy." He says, "I don't care, I can't hit it." Well, Ray missed the green on every par 3 that day and we lost, 3 and 2.

There's a lot to be said for taking a shag bag into an open field, alone, and learning on your own. From the time I was small through my years in the Air Force, I practiced using my own balls, and I got so much out of it. You pay attention to every shot because you don't want to walk all over picking them up. When you're retrieving the balls you have time to think about your swing, with no interruptions from some guy next to you. I highly recommend it—if you can find an open field.

By the time I signed up for lessons when I was 13, the swing I have today was already ingrained. Over the years I tried to change, but I really couldn't play any other way. Jackie Burke says my swing looks like an octopus falling out of a tree, and others say I look like a man opening an umbrella in the wind. But after I loop the club to the inside on the downswing, I look like any other good player. The downswing is all that matters.

I discovered that when you give a lesson, you sometimes have to demonstrate. With my swing, that was a challenge. I'd say, "This is how you do it when you don't do it the way I do it." There was a credibility gap there, but I got the job done.

If you don't think you can win on the PGA Tour, my advice is to not try to join the PGA Tour.

Ben Hogan told me to keep a journal of my progress. It was very important, he said, that I organize it into two sections: the keys that worked in my golf swing when I was playing well, and the things that didn't work at all—and why they didn't work. The journal took me to another level because it stopped me from wasting time. Golfers often try things in their swing a second time, knowing it didn't work the first time. They forget why it didn't work and figure it might do them some good if they just give it another chance. They're chasing their tails. Keeping a journal stops that nonsense.

Players who represented the Hogan Company in the '70s were always impressed by how much Ben knew about them. He always seemed to know how much they were practicing, what was happening in their lives and how well they were representing the company. Now it can be told: I was Ben's eyes on tour. I was his spy. I'd have meetings with him and update him on all his players. He was very hungry for information, and I gave it to him. This was very hard for me to do because these fellows, after all, were my friends.

Because I won the first Byron Nelson Golf Classic, at Preston Trail in 1968, this year they asked me to come to his tournament to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Byron's streak of winning 11 in a row. They wanted me to hit a ball off the first tee, and to do it they gave me a persimmon-headed Byron Nelson driver. I took it over to the range, and a bunch of young players swarmed around me and examined the driver like it was a dinosaur fossil. I told them, "Boys, this is what we played in my day. Go ahead and give it a try." Rory Sabbatini and several others gave it their best shots and hit it out there about 280—not bad, but they're at least 25 yards longer with titanium. "You had to play with this?" they said. "I did. So did Nicklaus, and he hit it farther than you guys with a ball that wasn't nearly as hot as these."

My parents separated when I was 3. Many years later, I was playing at Colonial when I got a message to call Mr. Miller Barber. It turned out to be my father; I thought he'd died. I learned you never close a door out of resentment. My father said he'd picked up the phone many times but couldn't summon the courage to make the call. We became good friends, and even my mother was happy that I'd finally met my father.

I played more than 600 tournaments on the Champions Tour and would have to say I got the best of it. The purses weren't quite as high during my prime years as today, but the atmosphere was tremendous. Guys like Arnold and Chi Chi, the real ticket sellers, were there to spice it up. I think the tour lacks color now. Tom Watson is a great player, but I'm not sure he moves the fan-attendance meter. I'm not sure there will even be a Champions Tour in five years. The players have got to find a way to be more entertaining, because the Champions Tour is more about show business than golf.

For years I wore a magnetic bracelet on my wrist to fight off arthritis. I didn't have arthritis when I started wearing the bracelet, and I never did get it. So the bracelet worked, right?