Dreams of ankle-deep rough on tap as former prodigy struggles to recapture US Open magic

By Jim Litke, AP
Monday, June 22, 2009

Barnes finds lead easier to grab than hang onto

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Everything Ricky Barnes accomplished this weekend had magic written all over it.

He came into the U.S. Open as the 519th-ranked player in the world. If Barnes somehow manages to hang on, a win would make Ben Curtis’ shocking victory at the 2003 British Open — Curtis was No. 396 and playing in his first major — seem positively ho-hum.

But that began to look like a very big “if” after Barnes bogeyed the first hole of the fourth round Sunday evening to fall into a tie at 7-under with Lucas Glover, then hooked his tee shot at No. 2 into the hay on the left before play was called.

Try sleeping on that. More ominous still, after carding just one bogey on the front nine in Round 3, Barnes carded four more on the back. That explained, perhaps, why he looked at times during the rest of the day like someone wondering whether — or when — the clock would strike midnight and the spell broken.

“If you don’t have a little bit of nerves when you’re in the heat of competition, and especially in the last group,” Barnes said at the end of the third round, “you’re not human.”

For all the greatness predicted when he won the U.S. Amateur in 2002, Barnes only earned his PGA Tour card last November. In a dozen starts this year, he’s been just below average at hitting greens, near the bottom in driving accuracy and dead last in putting.

But until the afternoon shadows lengthened Sunday, he hadn’t put too many softspikes down wrong since first setting foot inside the gates on soggy Bethpage Black. Starting with the opening round here, Barnes ranked fourth, 34th and 15th in those same telling categories.

Maybe that’s why older brother Andy, who’s been toting Ricky’s bag through the tournament, cautioned against mistaking that nervous energy for a lack of conviction. He battled his little brother hammer-and-tong since they were little — their father, former NFL punter Bruce Barnes had to separate them on occasion — and fragile is the last word he’d use to describe Ricky.

“Trust me,” said Andy, 31, older by 3 1/2 years and a former Canadian Tour player. “One thing he’s never lacked is confidence.”

That was certainly true earlier in the day, when Barnes came out after setting a 36-hole U.S. Open scoring record and promptly birdied No. 2, then eagled No. 4 to become the fourth member of an exclusive club that has bettered par by double digits in 109 previous U.S. Opens. It appeared less so when he walked off the 18th after missing a 4-footer that finished off an even-par 70 and left him a stroke ahead of Lucas Glover heading into the final round.

“I can’t complain,” Barnes said, “too much.”

The putt at 18 was the second short one Barnes missed coming down the stretch, but if the tough New York crowd sensed any weakness, they did a good job of hiding it — for most of the day, anyway. There were roars for Barnes at every turn on his first go-round, even when Glover, a pal from their college days, narrowed the gap to a single stroke.

Glover laughed off the crowd support for Barnes by pointing out, “He’s got cooler pants than me.”

But a moment later, he made it clear he wasn’t exactly brimming with confidence himself.

“I don’t think there’s very many people that think I can, or will do it, anyway, so that’s fine,” said Glover.

For his final-round debut, Barnes swapped out those brightly checkered slacks for a pair of dark trousers, but he’s never been shy about calling attention to himself, not even playing alongside Tiger Woods in the 2003 Masters. He made the most of his invitation as the reigning amateur champion by climbing as high as third place before settling into a tie for 21st.

Back then, most people expected to see him playing regularly against Woods with big paydays on the line. But over the next half-dozen years, Barnes’ career arc traced the same path as one of his booming, but errant drives. He still lunges at the ball, generating explosive power from his 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame with each swing. What Barnes hasn’t yet mastered is when to throttle back and trade spectacular for safe.

“When he got his card, I told him the only thing that separated him from those guys out there was attitude,” Andy recalled.

What he meant by “attitude” was not confidence, but how Ricky approached everything from when, and how much to practice, to dealing with the adversity of facing guys more experienced and more determined to put food on the family table.

After giving up his own dreams of playing on tour, Andy settled into a job as assistant golf coach at Arizona, Ricky’s alma mater. He’s only too familiar with kids who coast through the amateur phase of their career, getting by on sheer talent. Like the rest of us, he won’t find out until sometime Monday morning whether his very gifted little brother has taken that lesson about professionalism by heart.

Either way, Barnes will have to start his day in ankle-deep rough and go from there. It’s a scenario that practically guarantees a night of tossing and turning, something that Barnes appeared headed for after he left the course without stopping to talk to reporters.

“He knows what’s at stake,” Andy said. “All you control in this crazy game is the next shot.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org

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