ERIN, Wis. – Derek Barron was practically born with a club in his hands. Only not a golf club, mind you.
The son of Tony Barron, a long-time minor leaguer who played in 58 MLB games, Derek played baseball his whole life. He traveled with his father to his various outposts and played on teams in whatever area they landed.
By his high school years, Derek had developed into quite the player himself: A dynamic shortstop/third baseman who had a strong arm and could hit for power.
He garnered interest from several winter league teams in Central and South America, squads hoping the Barron family product would head down there at age 18 and start his professional baseball career.
Playing pro ball is what Barron had always wanted. Only by the time he was 16, he was wavering.
“I probably could have made a living at (baseball), but I kind of wanted to do something different,” Barron said.
That thought was the start of a long path … some 16 years later, the former pro baseball prospect is at one of pro golf’s greatest stages.
Barron will compete in the U.S. Open this week at Erin Hills after earning medalist honors at the Lakewood, Wash., sectional by five shots.
It’s the 32-year-old’s first major (and first PGA Tour start), and for a guy who for half of his life figured he’d thrive as a pro in a different sport, yes, it was quite the journey here.
Barron’s introduction to golf was on a whim, as Tony invited his son to play golf one day at nine-hole Fort Steilacoom Golf Course in Lakewood when Barron was around 17 years old.
It was the first time the teenager had ever picked up a golf club. His first strike: Not a duff that dribbled a few yards. Instead, Barron rocketed a low worm burner some 240 yards.
From there, he was hooked. Barron’s ability immediately translated to his new game, so much so that he was scratch within a year and a half.
With a new sporting pastime grabbing his attention, Barron eschewed his baseball dreams. How’d that go? It’s been a long path, but it’s worked out.
Barron went to Green River Community College for two years before dropping out. “It just wasn’t my thing, honestly,” Barron said.
He then embarked on a series of odd jobs. At one time he worked at his grandfather’s hydraulics company, at one point moved on to employment at an REI distribution center and at another unloaded Christmas gifts. He also found jobs as a construction foreman and a bank courier.
It wasn’t glamorous by any means, especially the Christmas gig.
“I was unloading trucks in the middle of winter, and it was at some weird sketchy warehouse,” Barron said with a laugh.
But his golf game continued to improve, and even as an amateur he was beating pros. Barron became convinced he could make money in golf, turning pro in 2011 and taking a job as an assistant pro at Tacoma (Wash.) Firs Golf Center the following year.
He had plenty of local success, winning several events as a member of the Pacific Northwest PGA section. Thanks to Barron’s baseball roots, his hand-eye coordination was off the charts, and that led to a powerful swing that did wonders.
He currently clocks his average swing speed at 118 mph and has gotten it up to 125 mph. And he’s not even swinging that hard: There’s plenty of power in reserve.
“I haven’t played with too many guys (like Derek) who can reach back and hit it 350-360 yards and (the ball) doesn’t move,” said Tony Robydek, the director of instruction at Meadow Park Golf Course in Tacoma
But Barron’s dream of making it out on the big professional tours didn’t start to take shape until he gained financial backing from a couple of friends last year.
Barron made it through first stage of Web.com Tour Q-School last fall but fell several shots short of passing through second stage.
He wasn’t happy. So Barron turned to Robydek. The instructor had known Barron since the burgeoning pro was 19 and the two had worked a bit together, but it was nothing more than casual.
This winter, though, Barron was ready to put the full haul in. He met with Robydek two-three days per week in Washington and essentially overhauled his swing – sometimes in brutal 30-degree conditions.
Why the bitter work for change? Deep down Barron knew his previous swing could only take him so far. The power was there, but his swing was steep, causing him to dig at wedges. His vertical motion also could lead to the occasional errant shot that is a disaster at the touring pro level.
“He wanted to eliminate the loose shot and he wanted to become a great wedge player inside 100 yards.” Robydek said. “Watch how hard he worked to change the swing to where it is today.”
Indeed, the duo flattened out his motion and moved his weight and body behind the ball to get a less handsy swing. After the work, Barron’s confidence jumped up and he tied for 12th at Mackenzie Tour Q-School to earn full status there for 2017.
After opening with a pair of top-20 finishes, Barron says the Mackenzie Tour remains his focus this year unless something crazy happens this week – a scenario he is in no way ruling out. After all, it’s crazy that he’s even here.
Does Barron wish he’d taken up golf earlier? Not necessarily. As Barron noted, his early life in baseball played into his current success. He may not have his high-level swing speed and hand-eye coordination without over a decade of work at the ballpark.
Robydek flew into town Wednesday morning and Greg Talley, another instructor Barron works with, is on the bag this week.
With the combination of power and control Barron has constructed in his game, he’s confident in his golfing future. But he doesn’t forget what it took.
“I kind of did this the hard way,” Barron said.
The hard way? That’s an understatement.