This article first appeared in the June 10, 2003 issue of Sports Illustrated, Golf Plus U.S. Open Preview
It’s 11 o’clock on a Saturday night in Tucson, and Ricky Barnes looks whipped. He was up at dawn 1,200 miles away in wet and chilly Auburn, Wash., where the Arizona team he headlines played to a somewhat disappointing finish in the final round of the NCAA West Regional, at Washington National Golf Club. The Wildcats qualified for the NCAA finals (in which they would finish 17th, 38 shots behind the winner, Clemson), but they lost the team title to Pac-10 rival UCLA by a stroke, and Barnes felt it was all his fault.
“I couldn’t make a putt to save my life,” he says, as he and three friends meander through the 93° night. “I hit almost every green center in, but I couldn’t get it done. I don’t know what was wrong with me.” When Barnes falls silent, you’d swear that the day’s failure is tearing him up inside.
You’d be wrong. A moment later the silence is broken by a chorus of heavenly voices. “Rick-eee!” sings a sextet of coeds queued up outside Gentle Ben’s bar, where Barnes and company are headed. Inside, a graduation party is in full swing. “How’s it going, Ricky?” asks one of the women as she lifts the rope so that Barnes and his buddies can slide under. He flashes a smile and falls into conversation with the women. Suddenly life doesn’t seem so bad, and Barnes can be forgiven for leaving out one tiny detail about that day’s round in Washington: He shot a 67, briefly tying the course record.
“Ricky’s probably less interested in his successes than anyone else,” says Arizona coach Rick LaRose. “It’s almost as if he’s still learning how good he really is. We’ve had some great golfers — David Berganio, Jim Furyk, Robert Gamez, Annika Sorenstam — but Ricky is the best at the collegiate level we’ve ever had here.”
High praise, but justified. Barnes, a 22-year-old communications major who is a semester shy of earning a degree, is a four-time All-America and the cowinner (with Hunter Mahan of Oklahoma State) of the 2003 Ben Hogan Award as the nation’s top collegiate golfer. But Barnes’s senior season has been more noteworthy for two other accomplishments: his U.S. Amateur win at Oakland Hills last August (where he defeated Mahan 2 and 1 in the final) and his performance at the Masters in April, when he shot a three-over 291 to come in 21st, matching the best finish by an amateur in five years.
At Augusta the winner of the Amateur traditionally is paired with the defending Masters champion for the opening two rounds, and going into the tournament, most observers took note of Barnes only because he had a front-row seat for Tiger Woods’s pursuit of a record third consecutive green jacket. Instead, it was Barnes whom Woods pursued. Barnes’s first-round 69 at waterlogged Augusta National was seven shots better than Woods’s score, and the massive galleries following Tiger embraced Barnes. He made the cut at one under (six strokes ahead of Woods) and remained on the leader board until late in the third round.
Millions of television viewers got their first look at what Pac-10 fans had been seeing for four years: an aggressive player with a natural flair and a lot of game. Throw in pop-star good looks — the hay-yellow hair and muscled physique — and manic energy, and you have the most charismatic amateur since…well …since Tiger. “He was awfully impressive out there,” Woods said at the Masters. “He handled the pressure well. I know how hard that is to do.”
Can Barnes repeat his Masterspiece next week during the U.S. Open at Olympia Fields? Barnes, who tied for sixth at the NCAAs, sometimes hits driver when he shouldn’t, which could lead to problems in the punitive Open conditions. He’s also a streaky putter, with a tendency to rush when the ball’s not falling. And he will, as always, have to contend with his Incredible Hulk temperament. Barnes morphs into the brooding Hulk after crooked drives or when the execution of a shot doesn’t match his daring.
“His attitude gets in his way at times,” says LaRose. “He’s a perfectionist, and sometimes he causes himself grief. He’ll lose a shot or two because he’s still mad at a shot he blew earlier. He loses focus. But you shouldn’t stifle that competitive spirit.”
At Augusta, Barnes’s fearlessness and fire evoked comparisons to a young Arnold Palmer, although Barnes doesn’t see it. “That’s not only flattering, it’s also ridiculous,” he says. “I can’t even comprehend that.” Longtime UNLV coach Dwaine Knight insists that the comparison is appropriate. “Like Arnie, Ricky feels the sport intensely; he reacts to it,” Knight says. “Palmer was one of the first truly emotional players. And he loved to go for things. When he put a shot into the woods, he thought, How do I get this to the green? Ricky’s like that. The crowd loves it. They respond to him.
“But Ricky has to learn to temper himself,” Knight adds. “He has a little crash-and-burn in his game. He’s a bit of a car wreck waiting to happen, isn’t he?”
At the West Regional, Barnes takes only three shots before the duel with himself commences. Right before teeing off, a hailstorm drove Barnes from the putting green to a crowded tent, where for two hours he stewed over the poor playing conditions. “No offense to Washington,” he said, “but scheduling this tournament up here was stupid.” Finally back on the course, he hammers his drive 10 yards past the others in his group. His swing isn’t textbook, but what Barnes lacks in technique he makes up for in raw power.
From the fairway he puts his second shot on the par-5 hole into a bunker fronting the green. Worse, he hits the sand shot fat, leaving himself a difficult 45-foot putt for birdie. That’s when the fun begins. Barnes angrily swings his wedge in the bunker, sending a fresh blast of sand into the air. When he sees his ball, he almost launches the club but instead uses it to either knock the sand from his spikes or to try to knock the feet from his legs — it’s hard to tell, so violent are the blows. After three-putting for bogey, Barnes stomps toward the 2nd tee dropping a trail of f bombs.
A moment later, play is interrupted by another hailstorm, and back in the tent joking with his teammates, Barnes seems like a different person. “That’s Ricky,” says UNLV sophomore Ryan Moore, Barnes’s playing partner that day and a frequent opponent. “He’s really emotional out there. He’s a different guy.” The good cheer lasts this time. For the rest of the round Barnes will only occasionally feed the club-abuser within.
Since the Masters, when Barnes has shown up at a college event, he has stopped traffic. Many of the other players, dwarfed by the 6’3″, 215-pound Barnes, tentatively introduce themselves and are surprised to learn that Barnes is as affable and laid-back outside the ropes as he is fiery and intimidating inside them. “People come up to us all the time — at lunch, working out in the morning, at the gas station — and they all want to have a moment with him,” says Arizona teammate Andrew Medley, Barnes’s friend and roommate. “But he has stayed humble. We talked every day [during the Masters], and he never once started talking about his play. It was as if he wasn’t even there. The night he got back, we went out like nothing had happened. He doesn’t brag, but he believes in himself.”
So do the many people looking to make Barnes a rich man when he turns pro, which he’ll do after playing in the British Open in July. A thicket of agents and equipment reps followed him at the West Regional. “His stock went through the roof after the Masters,” says one agent. “He made himself a ton of money. He has it all: He’s good-looking and cut, so the girls love him; and people think he’s cool. On the course he’s aggressive, so guys want to play like him.”
Dealing with a rapidly improving Q rating can be difficult. Barnes is extroverted, but he nevertheless avoids the constant calls from prospective agents. (“I’ve narrowed my list to about four,” he says.) Living with Rick Anderson, a forward on the Arizona basketball team, has been a primer on the trappings — and the traps — of fame. “I don’t care about that stuff,” Barnes says. “Don’t get me wrong, I love college: the girls, the athletics, the school, meeting new people. But I’ve seen some crazy stuff living with Rick. Girls calling, sending crazy e-mails. I know what it’s all about.”
Not that he hasn’t taken his newfound fame for an occasional spin. On a recent weekend in Las Vegas with Medley, well-wishers routinely stopped Barnes, while the bouncers at nightclubs with long lines did not. “They’d grab us, congratulate him and tell him to come back anytime,” Medley says.
Listening to Jim Rome’s radio show one day before the West Regional, Barnes called in to offer his opinion on Annika Sorenstam’s playing in the Colonial. Barnes, in favor of her inclusion, had also been offered an exemption, which he had to decline. When Barnes identified himself to the show’s oblivious screener, he was almost disconnected. “Then I hear his boss go, ‘Dude, that’s the amateur!'” Barnes says. A spirited eight-minute chat with Rome followed.
Women are taking notice by the boatload, which can be unnerving. At the Masters one autograph seeker bluntly told him, “You’re hot,” and then passed him a piece of paper with her number on it during play. “Let’s just say that when Ricky goes out, he could have his pick if he wanted,” Medley says.
That alone is amazing if you knew Barnes when he was a 5’9″, 245-pound eighth-grader. “I wasn’t a fat kid,” he says. “I was a really fat kid. Chris Farley fat. Fatter than The Sandlot kid. Fatter than Chunk in The Goonies. I was huge.” Though popular and happy, he realized in his freshman year of high school that he was too heavy and began working out in earnest. At the same time, his mother, Cathy, lowered his food intake. “Like, she dropped me down to one dinner,” he says. When he returned for his sophomore year at Lincoln High in Stockton, Calif., friends didn’t recognize him. When the football coach saw Barnes’s 5’10”, 170-pound frame, he said, “Guess we lost our left tackle and picked up a tight end.”
To the chagrin of his father, Bruce, a former punter for the New England Patriots, Ricky gave up football after that season. Soccer was a safer option for a kid who had decided to focus on golf. Barnes knew he could play when he started outdriving his father’s friends. He figured he was pretty good when he started outdriving his older brother Andy’s friends. After a fairly successful high school career Ricky hoped to become a Bruin, but UCLA showed little interest, so he followed Andy, 3 1/2 years his senior, to Arizona and became the NCAA freshman of the year. “When I first met him, he looked like he was entering the Snickers Olympics,” LaRose says, “but he showed he could be great, and now he’s put it all together.”
As difficult as the U.S. Open will be, Barnes is not intimidated. For starters, this will be his third Open in four years. He made the field through qualifying in 2000 and in ’02, missing the cut each time. Woods won both of those Opens, and he will again be paired with Barnes for the first two rounds at Olympia Fields. Will Tiger make the kid pay for stealing his thunder in Augusta? “Probably will,” Barnes says, laughing, “and I’ll still be ridiculously happy to play with him.”
Ridiculously happy is Barnes’s M.O. these days. Back at the graduation party in Tucson, he finally breaks off from the women and makes his way through an outdoor patio, taking in congratulations with every step. Someone hands him a beer. Like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Barnes greets a couple of Arizona basketball players, Jason Gardner and Luke Walton, and is feeling more energized by the minute.
Barnes has had the time of his life in college. Tired or not, he’s going to enjoy every last bit of it. Can you blame him?