Babineau: Conscience clear, Barber gets his chance on Tour
PACIFIC PALISADES, Calif. - Twenty-five of the top 50 players in the world have gathered at venerable Riviera Country Club this week for the Northern Trust Open here in the tony outskirts of Los Angeles.
They’ve lined up on the newly expanded practice tee the past two days, shoulder to shoulder, boasting impressive resumes. Why, there's four-time major champion Ernie Els, working on his takeaway with the driver. Next to him, former Masters champion Trevor Immelman is diligently ironing out his iron game. There’s three-time major champion Padraig Harrington, newly bespectacled, honing his wedge play.
And then there’s Blayne Barber, whose highlight to date as a fledgling pro would be capturing an event called the ICE Recycling Environmental Classic in Florence, S.C. He pocketed $22,000 for the triumph, which probably felt a whole lot like $1 million. Hey, you’ve got to start somewhere.
For Barber, 23, an upstanding young man with a starry amateur background that included first-team All-America accolades at Auburn and a Walker Cup appearance two years ago, his first PGA Tour start will come right here at famed Hogan’s Alley. He earned it as one of four players to get through Monday qualifying, taking a flyer by traveling more than 2,100 miles from Auburn, Ala., across the country to L.A., making it through not only on Monday (he shot 65 at Industry Hills) but also at a pre-qualifier five days earlier (66 at Morongo Golf Club).
“I just kind of stepped out and used some of the earnings I’ve made so far (on the NGA Tour),” he said. “I just thought of it as an investment.”
His game is worthy of the leap. At Auburn, Barber finished in the top 5 in 51 percent of his starts, a stat that fills his former college coach with great pride.
“An incredible stat,” Auburn’s Nick Clinard said Tuesday evening by phone from Alabama. “People don’t realize how good that is. He really understands how to play this game.”
To this point, though, Barber is mostly recognized for something that happened to him at the first stage of last fall’s PGA Tour Q-School. In the second round of qualifying at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga., Barber thought he may have grazed a leaf next to his ball when he played a bunker shot on the 13th hole. He talked it over with his fellow competitors and decided to call the penalty on himself, adding a shot to his score.
That night, a roommate (and former Auburn teammate), Michael Hebert, informed Barber that the penalty for his breach (Rule 13-4c, "Ball in hazard; prohibited actions") was two shots, not one. Barber talked over the situation with his brother, Shayne, who was caddying for him. He insisted Blayne’s club never touched the leaf. So Barber consulted a rules official the next morning and told him he’d signed for a score higher than he’d shot (71, allowable under the rules), and played on for two more rounds. He closed with 66 and breezed to second stage by five shots.
The more he thought about that darned leaf, though, Barber simply could find no inherent peace. On Nov. 2, eight days after the incident in the bunker occurred, he phoned the Tour and disqualified himself. There would be no second stage, and a career on the Web.com or PGA Tour would go on hold. His move allowed six other players who thought they'd finished one shot out to advance.
“Just called and did what I felt was right and was disqualified from it, and moved on from it, and here we are,” Barber said Tuesday.
“. . . But it’s just a part of the process and I’m still young and have a lot of golf ahead of me. I moved on from it very quickly.”
If that’s how he’s identified these days, as the guy who DQ'd himself from Q-School, he’s fine with it. Some praise him; others question why he took so long for him to make the difficult call he made. Mostly, he's received great support for his actions. He’s had parents and schoolteachers thank him for being a good example, and for doing the right thing.
So second stage was suddenly gone, but Barber's conscience was set free. Barber went out the following week and won his next pro start on the NGA Bridgestone Winter Tour outside Orlando, earning $9,620 which ultimately would help bankroll his trip to Los Angeles this week.
Once the Web.com Tour settles into a domestic schedule here at home, Barber, who got married in December, will chase Monday qualifiers on that tour, hoping to put together some strong performances to garner status and traction that could one day lead him to bigger things. Like the PGA Tour.
Clinard, who coached Barber both at Central Florida (for one season) and then at Auburn, believes his player has what it takes to become a successful player at the game’s highest levels.
“From a personal standpoint, you won’t find a better person,” Clinard said. “With him, it’s about faith and family, and golf takes a third seat. I admire that.
“From a golf standpoint, he hits the ball very straight, has great distance control, and is a very good putter inside 10 feet. He has confidence, and he dreams big. Mentally he has what it takes, and I see him getting out there (on the PGA Tour) and doing well for a long, long time.”
Tuesday was Barber’s only shot at getting to play Riviera before his group tees off last Thursday, at 1:25 p.m. off No. 10. Fortunately, he knows some of the nuances of Riviera, having tied for seventh at the NCAA Championship when it was played there in May.
He’ll look around the range and the clubhouse and see many of his peers from college and amateur days, many of whom already have tasted success by winning on the Web.com and even the PGA Tour. It's just not his time yet.
“It definitely gives me confidence,” he said, smiling.
He was so excited about his first Tour start that he couldn’t get to sleep on Monday night. He's been tweeting out pictures of his Tour perks, including one of his ride for the week, a Mercedes SUV. This circuitous path to Riviera may not have been quite the one he envisioned, but here he is, and it won’t take long after his first tee shot to feel as if he belongs.
After all, in his heart, he knows he does.