FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Ricky Barnes boiled over with frustration. He slammed his bag with an iron, took enough whacks to destroy his brother’s cell phone, which had been tucked into his golf bag for safe-keeping.
“He broke two of my phones that way,” his brother, Andy, said.
Barnes admittedly was a bit of a hot head. He’s a competitor who doesn’t like to lose, but he would just about lose his mind from missing cuts in golf’s minor leagues.
“I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t really pissed off the first two or three years,” Barnes said of his struggles to make it to golf’s biggest stage.
But he said he’s grown up, learned a lot about himself in the process, and finally earned his card on the PGA Tour.
At the U.S. Open, there has been reason to flash his once famous smile, the one that landed him a series of endorsement deals and sponsor exemptions when he first turned pro in 2003. Barnes is atop the U.S. Open leaderboard following up an opening-round 67 with a bogey-free 5-under 65. In doing so, Barnes set a 36-hole U.S. Open scoring record.
“Could I have predicted I would shoot 132? No,” Barnes said. “Did I know I had it in me? Yeah.”
Just about everyone thought his game would take off like a rocket ship. Barnes was a “can’t miss kid,” a four-time All-American at Arizona and winner of the 2002 U.S. Amateur. That victory earned him a spot in the 2003 Masters, where he was paired with Tiger Woods for the first two rounds. Barnes bombed drives past Tiger, and became an instant fan favorite with his wide smile and surfer boy looks. He was tied for third after 36 holes and finished as low amateur. Later that year he made the cut at the U.S. Open and turned pro with lofty expectations.
Instead he’s been more flash in the pan, with few reasons to smile since joining the pro ranks.
“It’s been a humbling experience,” Barnes said.
Barnes bottomed out in 2007 when he finished No. 71 on the Nationwide Tour money list. Guys he used to pummel surpassed him while he was stuck in the minors. The endorsement money dried up, the exemptions went away.
At 28, the pieces of the puzzle are starting to fit together for Barnes. He’s finally taking the advice of his college coach, who always told him to spend as much time on the golf course as he did at the gym.
“Hard work beats out talent every day,” preached his brother.
Hard work coupled with a game plan he believes in. Barnes started working with golf instructor Dean Reinmuth 18 months ago. Barnes blends power and finesse, but he had to learn to harness his ability. He had to understand his swing, learn when to attack flags, and to control his ball flight. He earned his PGA Tour card by finishing 25th on the 2008 Nationwide Tour money list.
His rookie season on Tour, during which he has made six of 12 cuts and finished no better than T-47, offered little indication that a breakthrough was near.
So far this week, he is finding fairways and greens, always a recipe for success at a major. Through two rounds of the U.S. Open, he hit 31 of 36 greens in regulation and made only one bogey. The biggest surprise may be his putting – he ranks 190th in putts per round on Tour this year. Earlier this week, Reinmuth suggested Barnes stand a little closer to the ball when putting to avoid a push stroke.
“I told him earlier, ‘You can clearly win. You have the skill to win now,’ ” Reinmuth said.
It helps to have his older brother in his corner this week. He’s caddying for Barnes for the first time this year. He’s more than a familiar face. He’s someone who knows Barnes’ tendencies and can give him a kick in the rear when necessary.
“I can tell him what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear,” Andy Barnes said.
And with that, he fished his cell phone out of his pants pocket.