His fellow pros call him the Mysterious Mr. X, or simply Mr. X. His name, Miller Barber, sounds like the alias for a character in Mission: Impossible or a band leader. He dresses like an enforcer for the local arm of the mob, wearing drab navy blues and maroons and blacks and browns every day. He has modishly rounded, blue-tinted prescription glasses that are straight from the latest riot at Berkeley. For a time, the other pros even thought he was the tour bookie. However, they never kid about the mystery man's golf game. They know that Miller Barber's swing will not self-destruct in five seconds.
Last week Mr. X and his indestructible swing were at the $100,000 Tucson Open. Where else would Miller Barber be when there is a golf tournament on the schedule? Barber played in 34 of a possible 42 tournaments in 1968, winning the Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas and earning a total of $105,845.38—ninth place on the money list. This season he and Lee Trevino are the only golfers from the 1968 top 10 to have played in all seven PGA tournaments. Barber won the rain-abbreviated Kaiser International in January, tied for second in Phoenix two weeks ago and in Tucson finished second again, behind Trevino. For the seven weeks, the Mysterious Mr. X has grossed a comfortable $36,655, which puts him in third place on the 1969 money list.
Naturally, tournament sponsors wish the more established players would approach the tour with Barber's enthusiasm. Tucson, for instance, had only four of last year's top-10 money winners in its field, and among the missing were Billy Casper, Jack Nicklaus, Julius Boros and Arnold Palmer. Casper, Nicklaus and Palmer also missed the previous week's Phoenix Open, and they represent box office, the difference often between red or black in the ledgers.
The Tucson Conquistadores, a volunteer organization of 50 local businessmen which runs the tournament and guarantees an advance ticket sale of $75,000 against total operating expenses of some $150,000, needed roughly $50,000 in live box-office sales to clear any profit for its youth athletic projects. "If we had one of the 'names' that we don't have, there would be no problem at all," said Ed Richter, the tournament director. "I guess you tend to get upset at these things. I know we stayed right behind the players during the feud last year, though, and I thought we might get one of them to play here."
"Personally, I never care what players decide to play a tournament," says Miller Barber. "If Palmer and Casper and Nicklaus and Boros sit out one week, it means I have a better chance to win more money. And that's why I am out here in the first place."
Barber, who is 37 and a bachelor—which probably explains why he rarely takes a break from the tour—did not start to win money consistently until six years ago. He learned the game as a kid in Texarkana, Texas, and was No. 1 man on the University of Arkansas golf team for three years until he graduated in 1954. He spent the next 3½ years as a lieutenant in the Air Force, and during that time some officer friends convinced him to try tour golf when he was discharged.
So, in 1959, Miller joined the tour. Three years later, realizing he had to improve his game, he took a teaching position at the Apawamis Club in Rye, N.Y. By 1963 he was ready to try again. Some 60 Apawamis members each contributed $100 for his stake, and Miller promised to repay the syndicate as soon as possible. At the end of the 1963 tour, he paid the syndicate $12,000—a 100% return on the investment—and headed out alone.
By 1966 Barber had become one of the steadiest players on the circuit, and he has won more than $200,000 since then. He hits his drives longer than most players. His irons move on a high trajectory, and his short game is meticulous. On the greens, he may not be a George Archer, but he is better than most players.
Away from the course, Miller is sometimes seen but seldom heard. "Mr. X is kind of sneaky when he goes out at night," says Terry Dill. "He's always with a blonde, and he always sits in the corner and never lets anyone see him or his date. We can all be standing there in the entrance of a place, and he'll walk right around us without saying a word." Barber sees nothing mysterious about any of this. "I see the guys all day long," he says, "so at night I like to go off and be by myself. I'll see them all the next day anyway."
However, there are signs lately that the world may soon be confronted by a new Miller Barber. "Yes, sir, the image is going to change," he said before flying to Miami for this week's Doral. "I've just gone out and ordered all kinds of gold and green and light-blue clothes. I'm going to become a little flamboyant."
Too bad. Somehow, a little color on the Mysterious Mr. X may make him less colorful.