Golf's most startling performances are being turned in these cays by a lively-tongued, likable Lilliputian named Jerry Barber. At 44, an age when the majority of touring professionals are nostalgically consigned to the rear ranks of the old guard, this 5-foot 5-inch gentleman from California is beating the best. Thanks to a powerful and unusual swing, a disciplined, analytical approach to the game and a touch of competitive malice in an otherwise peaceable personality, Barber has played well enough to win $30,000 in the last six months.
What's more, he is getting better. "Right now I have the keenest desire to win I have ever had," he says. "Lots of other fellows have won the big ones. I think it's my turn." After years of muscle-building exercises and ignoring "all those who said I was too old and too small," Jerry Barber has become golf's mouse that roared.
Barber uses a battered bunch of nine-year-old irons with chunks of lead set into circular holes in the back of the clubheads. His woods are in worse shape—the holes are unplugged. The head of his ancient putter has fallen off twice out of sheer fatigue. Wielding this archaic equipment is a mere 137 pounds of man, compared, say, to Ben Hogan's 160 pounds (and they call him Bantam Ben) or Mike Souchak's 200. Hair has deserted half the Barber head, spectacles attest to nearsightedness, and the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes are so deep they seem branded in. When he glares with displeasure in his thin-lipped fashion, he looks more like an aging, irritated algebra teacher than an athlete. This illusion of incompetence vanishes when Barber steps up to a golf ball. He plants the left foot solidly, leans in a little from the right and grips the club firmly in large hands backed by massive wrists and forearms. His back-swing is the picture of rhythmic ease; his downswing is an explosion that puts his drives out with all but the very longest hitters. He is a master of the chip and the short approach shot, and his putting is generally conceded to be the best in the pro ranks today.
"Aw, knock the ball in"
July 24, 1960
Barber began his big year with a dramatic putt on the final hole of the Yorba Linda Open in January. Playing the last round with Billy Maxwell and Julius Boros, he seemed to have an unbeatable lead until Maxwell sank an eight-iron on the 18th hole for an eagle 3.
Things like this had happened to Barber before. He once had a 10-stroke lead rained out in the Los Angeles Open. Another time Souchak birdied the last six holes to beat him by a single stroke. In all, he had won only two tournaments in 12 years on the tour, and none since 1954.
Maxwell's eagle stunned Barber. Now he had to sink a tough 12-footer to win. "I guess I'm just not supposed to win a tournament," he whispered to Boros. "Aw, knock the ball in the hole," Julius told him. Putting almost carelessly, Barber went ahead and sank it.
The victory putt earned him an invitation to the Tournament of Champions at Las Vegas. He broke the tournament record there by seven strokes and won again. He lost the De Soto Open by one stroke ("stupidity"), set a course-record 63 while finishing second at Indianapolis and had a chance to win the National Open until the 12th hole of the last round. "The wheels stopped turning," he later told members of Los Angeles' Wilshire Country Club, where he is home pro.
The Wilshire Country Club plays a major role in Jerry Barber's life. He has been a pro there for six years but, unlike almost all touring professionals, Barber's affiliation with his club is a real and demanding one. He plays on the tour only seven months a year. The other five he stays at Wilshire, where his time is given to the incessant daily demands made on any club professional. In six years he has not had a vacation.
"It is almost impossible to be a club pro and play the circuit too," Barber said the other day as he sat behind his glass-topped desk in a corner of the Wilshire pro shop. "And you won't believe me, but being on the tour is easier."
Barber had arrived at 8 a.m., on this typical morning at Wilshire. In the first hour he told a salesman what he thought of a new split-soled golf shoe ("Improve it"); he made three phone calls trying to replace a club lost from a member's bag; he sold a golf shirt ("You'll like it, sir"); he nodded understandingly as one member complained about another's handicap; and he explained once again, this time to the chairman of the greens committee, how he happened to lose the National Open.
In the next hour he continued alternating between being a brisk, able executive and a deferential employee. He set up a system to keep caddies out of the club storage room, told a Western Union operator that if she would stop talking and listen she'd understand his message, took phone calls for two members on the course and graciously explained, for the nth time, when asked how he lost the Open. ("Funny," he recalled later. "Nobody ever says, 'That was a great first three rounds.' They always say, 'What happened the last day?' "
At 10 a.m. he started giving lessons. The fourth-leading money winner in the country, Barber still charges only $5 per half hour of teaching. Occasionally, when the pupil shows little progress or is a youngster apparently without much money, Barber somehow forgets to send a bill at all.
Giving lessons costs him valuable practice time, "but this is part of being a club pro," he says. "It's a duty I wouldn't shirk."
"Just a couple of jerks"
Barber is a good teacher, making his points in memorable fashion. He can do it formally with those he doesn't know: "Your right hand is a weed, Mr. Brown. It's choking your swing.... Don't move your legs, sir, unless you want to hit the ball with them.... If you must hit with your right hand, Mr. Brown, use your other right hand."
He is less formal with those he has met before: "A golf club is a tool, Luke, but stop using it like a plumber's wrench.... Moving the body to the right is passé. It went out with the hoopskirt.... You're jumping at the ball like a wild dog in a meat house.... As the Arab said when he found his ball in a sand trap, that's more like it."
And sometimes he is not formal at all: "Stop acting like a Mau Mau, Roger. That's a golf club, not a machete.... That swing was just a couple of jerks. You were one of them.... Sam Snead fell out of bed and found his golf game, but you and I will have to practice, I fear."
"Sirs" speckle his conversation like pepper on a Caesar salad, and his occasional profanity verges on the mid-Victorian. "Dad-blamed, sir," he may say, or, "Confound it."
Yet he is often a Barber with a razor's edge, the line between his humor and verbal baiting being exceedingly thin. When an erratic-swinging Wilshire member asked him for "five seconds of advice" he smilingly replied: "Find a couch, sir, lie down and forget the game." To another he had bested in a small bet he said: "Don't worry, sir. If I had your money I'd burn mine." When asked to participate in a major golf clinic he inquired: "My crooked old swing won't embarrass you, will it?" knowing full well his crooked old swing was in much demand.
Perhaps because his own remarks can cut, he is overly alert to implied slurs from others. He looks for insults with the pugnacious sensitivity of the little man. Certain words—small, old, missed, can't—are like red flags and the user had best beware if he applies them to Barber.
He has a way of offering his opinions outspokenly and has made his share of enemies in the process. He has told officials of more than one company that their merchandise was shoddy and he would have no truck with it, and he has proudly turned down money owed him when he felt the payment was being offered grudgingly.
After a half-hour lunch—a fruit bowl—on that same day at Wilshire, Barber played 18 holes with a vice-president of the club, shooting 3 under par, and then returned to work in the pro shop.
It wasn't until 7 p.m. that he climbed into his white Cadillac and headed for his new $35,000 home in the Los Angeles suburb of La Canada. He had put in an 11-hour day and had not found time for a single practice shot, though he practices more than almost any touring pro.
With two jobs Barber, in effect, leads two lives, bringing to each the meticulous attention to detail which has led him to success. "Lots of fellows have more golfing talent than I do," he says, "but they haven't worked as hard."
Barber was one of nine children of a Jacksonville, Ill. farmer. His home was near a public golf course. When he was 6 he and his two brothers built a four-hole course of their own in the family orchard, with buried tomato cans serving as cups. "From that time on I wanted to be a golf pro," he says.
By his late teens he was playing par golf by day and working 10 hours as a printer at night. In 1940 he turned professional and after the war opened a driving range in Los Angeles. Friends remember how he used to play practice rounds on the local public courses from the back tees with the old dead golf balls so that his shots felt livelier in tournaments; how he had a Boltish temper which has long since mellowed into a superficial blandness worthy of a bishop—granting even a bishop certain leeway in a sand trap—and how he practiced, practiced, practiced.
They tell of nondrinker Barber winning a bottle of whisky in a small tournament and smashing it on a rock. A Los Angeles economist, Dr. Loring McCormick, was so shocked at this display of wanton destruction that he took Barber in hand, teaching him, in effect, how to grow up.
But it took—of all things—a Cameroon hair sheep to get Barber on the professional tour. In 1947 a Los Angeles amateur golfer named Don McCallister discovered that the hide of the Ovis jubata could be used to make a full-fingered, skintight golf glove.
McCallister persuaded a Los Angeles company to make him a few samples and took Barber in as a business partner to help merchandise the new gloves. Barber took the samples to Tucson, where the touring pros were playing.
The gloves were so well received that Barber urgently called home for more. The harassed manufacturer had to make the next batch out of skins dyed in gala pastel colors which had originally been intended for ladies' dress gloves. These turned out to be even more popular. Not only had Barber and McCallister started a profitable glove business, they had accidentally helped the trend toward gaily colored golf equipment.
With the small but steady income from the glove royalties, Barber, now 31 and the father of two young children, decided he could at last try the tour himself. "My friends told me I was a knothead," he recalls somewhat bitterly. "They all said good luck, but not a one said he thought I would make good."
The solar plexus of the world
By 1955 he had, to a degree, made good. He had been fourth-money winner in 1954 and earned a place on the Ryder Cup team but, far more important, "I was finally learning a little about golf," he says. "I had met a man named Tom Brandon who taught me more about clubs than anybody else knows. The littlest detail about golf clubs can be vital to your game.
"I set myself a physical training schedule. I now do 120 push-ups a day and exercise with a 25-pound dumbbell, a 10-pound weight tied to a broom handle, a golf club shaft attached to a pulley, and spring-type hand grippers. Each of my exercises has been designed to aid specific muscles used in golf.
"If I had known how important conditioning is I would have started exercising years ago. Right now I'd like to go away for six months and be a health faddist. Then I'd come back and—pow!" he says, banging his fist into the imaginary solar plexus of the entire world.
It was also about 1955 that he discovered crucial elements of the Barber swing (see box). He started taking notes on his shots in tournament practice rounds, pacing off the distances to landmarks on each hole, and then sketching the course to see how it could best be played with his game. He likes to call these notes "my brains" and often during actual tournament play will be seen referring to them and stepping off yardage to his landmarks.
He has had oversize lenses made for his glasses so that the frames don't bother him when he putts. His clubs have special handmade grips, and he even goes so far as to change shoes from round to round because each pair "has different pressure points that might tire the feet."
Not since Hogan, has the game of golf been so thoroughly and scientifically attacked by one man. "Each day I learn something new," says Barber. "Each day I wonder how I could have been so stupid the day before.
"It's amazing what athletes don't know about their games. I'm a Dodger fan. I can tell why some of them don't hit. They have flaws in their swings that no golfer would tolerate."
"If he can do it, I can"
Now, in mid-1960, Barber has become an inspirational symbol to many golfers—"If that little guy can do it, so can I," they reason—and a favorite of the galleries. They find him cordial, approachable and, above all, a gentleman.
He plans to be on the golfing scene for some time. To those who claim he's too small, he says: "People who say they aren't big enough or talented enough are just looking for reasons not to try."
To those who point to his age, he says: "After 35, any game takes more work. The only question is, do you want to work that much harder? Most people quit because they have run out of desire, not because they are too old."
The best indication of how Barber has gotten where he is and how long he will remain there came while he was watching his son Tom hit some practice balls at Wilshire recently.
"Get your hands higher on the backswing, Tom," he said.
"I can't, Dad," answered the boy.
Anger flashed vividly across the father's face. Behind it were 500,000 practice shots, 200,000 push-ups and a thousand discouragements.
"Tell me you haven't, son, or tell me you don't," said Jerry Barber. "But never, never tell me that you can't."
BASICS OF THE BARBER SWING
How does a man so small hit a ball so far? Jerry Barber does it with a different kind of golf swing, one which he says took 10 years to develop. He now feels it is the most simple and practical swing for all golfers, regardless of size or ability. Here are four fundamentals of the Barber swing:
•The stance is slightly more open than normal. The feet are well spread and are far enough back from the ball to get them squarely under the body.
•The right knee is cocked inward, bracing the right leg. The weight is essentially on the inside of the right foot forward of the instep and on the outside of the left foot toward the heel.
•The wrists start to cock the instant the left arm moves the clubhead from the ball and are fully cocked before reaching the top of the backswing (instead of the usual cocking at or near the top of the backswing).
•There is no leg action to the right or shifting of the weight to the right. The right leg remains braced. The backswing is virtually confined to the arms, shoulders and chest, resulting in a bare minimum of body turn. Thus, when the downswing begins, the strength of the whole body is ready and able to move instantaneously to the left, down into the shot and right through toward the hole.