FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — Somehow, the can’t-miss kid did.
Ricky Barnes is 28 now and, for one day at least, perched where everyone predicted a half-dozen years ago he would be – atop the leaderboard at a U.S. Open. What no one expected were the detours through Q school and the mini-tours, all those missed cuts and moments when his chances of playing in the big leagues rested in someone else’s hands.
“Did I know I had it in me?” Barnes said, without waiting for an answer. “Yeah.”
The cockiness that defined him as a U.S. Amateur champion and four-time All-American was back on display Saturday at Bethpage Black, where Barnes returned after a rain delay and a suspension because of darkness to play the final nine holes of his second round. Starting at 5 under, he parlayed booming drives at Nos. 2 and 5 and a crisp 6-iron at the par-3 8th to make three birdies en route to the 36-hole U.S. Open scoring record of 132.
Golf might be the most humbling game of all, but it’s barely made a dent in Barnes. Maybe that’s why his older brother, Andy, has made a point of hanging nearby throughout the weekend. Someone has to remind Ricky that the game’s landscape is littered with second-round leaders who faded on the weekend.
“Two rounds of golf don’t make a tournament,” said Andy, who is three years older and caddies for Ricky when his full-time job as assistant golf coach at Arizona doesn’t get in the way.
“Or a career,” he added.
Indeed, a quick conversation with any member of the Barnes family reveals that Ricky came by his bravado honestly, same as his athletic pedigree and the explosive power he generates from a 6-foot-2, 200-pound frame.
Andy, who happily devoted a large chunk of his own childhood trying to keep Ricky in his place, played for a while on the Canadian tour. Their father, Bruce, who often wound up refereeing the disputes, played two seasons in the NFL as a punter for the New England Patriots.
“He thought he could compete with everybody,” Andy recalled, “but he didn’t know everybody.”
Learning the names of the guys he routinely whipped in the amateur ranks without a second thought turned out to be a painful lesson.
Coming off his amateur title, Barnes climbed as high as third at the 2003 Masters before slipping back into a tie for 21st. A handful of sponsor exemptions into PGA Tour events followed – without success. Within a year, he was relegated to trying to earn his way back into the big leagues on the Nationwide Tour.
In 2007, Barnes tracked a handful of names on the last day of the Nationwide’s final event, waiting to find out whether his earnings would be enough for a spot in the Top 25 and automatic promotion to the PGA Tour. He came up $6,137 short. Last November, after he finished 37th in the Nationwide championship, Barnes sat in the clubhouse getting updates from family and friends deployed around the course with cell phones. The call he spent all that time waiting for finally arrived. Enough rivals came up short to put him at No. 25 – by $3,583.
“I’ve grown up,” he said. “I obviously thought after my college career, I’d be out here right away. …
“The guy in basketball who gets drafted in the top 10, he’s going to get a three-year stint and settle into the NBA. Probably come off the bench and earn his stripes that way. But he’s going to get guided. Here you get thrown into the pack of wolves and go to Q school and you have to earn it.
“But that’s why I like it. The only guy I can blame,” he added, “is the guy in the mirror.”
That guy, though, has hardly set the PGA Tour on fire. Barnes had played in 12 events before the Open and missed the cut in half of them. At his last tournament, the St. Jude Classic in Memphis, he tied for 47th.
“Couple of unlucky breaks could have turned my tournament around, but I definitely felt I played well enough to be in the top 10 and I didn’t get anything to show for it,” he said. “I came here, wanted to be aggressive and kind of prove myself.”
Most golfers in his place would be content just to get a firm foothold. And Barnes might settle for that. But the moment someone reminded him that the U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach next year, not far from where he grew up in northern California, Barnes couldn’t help but wonder what the view from the top of the golfing heap might look like – from an even higher peak.
“I obviously would love to get back there. Heck,” he said, brightening, “why not go there as the U.S. Open champion.”
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org