Barber dead at 82: 'Mr. X' won with unique swing

Miller Barber during the 2012 Houston Greats of Golf Challenge.

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Miller Barber, who made the most combined starts in the history of the PGA and Champions tours, died June 11, according to the PGA Tour. He was 82. No cause of death was disclosed.

Barber had battled health issues in recent years. He had three bouts with pneumonia during the past winter and had been hospitalized at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Ariz., where in April he began undergoing chemotherapy sessions to treat stomach cancer.

“Golf has lost a great man and competitor,” Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said.

Born March 31, 1931 in Shreveport, La., Barber graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1954 and turned professional in 1958. He joined the Tour a year later, but failed in his first couple of attempts to make a living as a touring pro. Jim Ferree, who partnered with Barber to win the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf Demaret Division in 2002 and '03, remembered the time he was paired with Barber at a tournament in New Orleans.

“Miller had played so terrible," Ferree said. "I’ll never forget, we were walking in to get something to eat afterwards and Mike Souchak put a friendly hand on his shoulder and said, ‘Son, you need to find yourself a new job someplace.’ ”

Through hard work and sheer tenacity, Barber perfected his unorthodox swing – once described as an octopus falling out of a tree – and went on to make a combined 1,297 starts on the PGA and Champions tours.

“He became a wonderful driver of the ball and long-iron player, and he always was a wonderful putter,” said Don January, a friend and rival since their college days.

The late Sam Snead once said that Barber had the best balance of any player he’d ever seen. “That’s quite a statement right there,” Ferree said.

Barber, who didn't bother with a practice swing, notched his first of 11 PGA Tour titles at the 1964 Cajun Classic Open Invitational and won 24 times on the Champions Tour, including three U.S. Senior Opens. He held the 54-hole lead at the 1969 U.S. Open, but shot 78 in the final round.

Along the way, he picked up two of great nicknames in golf, answering to Mr. X and Precious.

“I called him both,” said January, who coined the latter (Ferree was responsible for the former).

January shared a car with Barber for more than 20 years. The odd-couple pairing traveled the Tour, splitting gas money and with Barber usually behind the wheel.

“He never got a ticket,” January said.

One off-season, January said they tried to remake Barber’s swing by taking the club back more inside and ridding Barber of the distinctive loop in his backswing. Barber worked hard at it, to no avail.

“He was the only one who could swing the way he did,” January said.

It worked. From 1963 until 1979, Barber finished among the PGA Tour’s top 60 money winners. When January arrived on what was then known as the Senior Tour in 1980, followed a year later by Barber, it was billed as the second coming of Frank and Jesse James. As a senior, Barber won at least one tournament every year from 1981 to 1989.

Barber kept on playing. It was all he knew. At the twilight of his career, Barber went to Jack Burke Jr. for a lesson. In his twangy, Texas tenor, Barber asked, “What do you think?”

Burke answered a question with a question of his own. “Do you have a hammer in the house?”

Barber said he did, drawing another peculiar question from Burke: “Do you have any big nails?” he wondered.

“Here’s what you do: When you go back home, you go to the hardware store and get yourself one or two nails and then go out to your garage and find a real good 2-by-4 post and take that hammer and that big nail and drive it in there real good and hang your bag up on it,” Burke said.

This was Burke’s unique way of saying it was time to call it quits. Barber took Burke’s words to heart. He played 10 events in 2004 and never made another official start on the Champions Tour.

“Jackie could be so cruel,” Ferree said.

Barber never strayed far from the game. He split his time between Troon North Golf Club and Whisper Rock in Scottsdale, where pros such as Geoff Ogilvy and Kevin Streelman knew he was on the back range by the sight of his cart. Barber wasn’t at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf this April, but his spirit was ever-present.

“Miller and I shot 3 under today,” said Ferree, who played solo in the two-man team event, with Barber’s name on the scoreboard, and finished in 12th place, ahead of seven teams.

It was one last start for Mr. X, a man who was determined to make it on Tour, and did.

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