The car was in gear, he remembers, and he had one foot hovering
over the gas pedal. Brian Barnes was trying to persuade himself
to slam down on the accelerator, let out the clutch and send his
BMW screaming over the cliffs at Chanctonbury Hill on the South
Downs overlooking Sussex. It was a January afternoon, one of
those depressing winter days when the south coast of England is
shrouded in gray, misty rain--a perfect day to commit suicide.
Once the life of every party and pub on the European tour,
Barnes had reached such a low four years ago that he thought
death was the best way out. His golf career was over, and he had
no money to speak of. The good times had been forgotten,
swallowed up in an alcoholic haze. Sitting in the car, Barnes
looked out over the cliffs and recalled what was often said
about the trees below: If you ran around them seven times, you'd
see the devil. Barnes had done enough running.
"It's impossible to say what I was thinking," he says, trying to
remember that terrifying day. "I didn't start off thinking about
committing suicide. The situation developed into that." At the
moment of truth, Barnes says a voice inside him said, This is
bloody silly. So he turned off the ignition and sat there,
feeling like the fool on the hill. He told himself that he
didn't have the guts to pop the clutch--the story of his life.
But, fortunately, not the story of his death.
Of course, Barnes was drunk that day. He was drunk every day and
had been for years. Why, Barnes had been weaned on alcohol, his
parents teething him on whisky and milk and pouring him a shot
of Guinness, which, it was said, was good for the bones. Later,
because he was big for his age, Barnes was the one who was sent
into the pub near his house in Somerset, southwest of London, to
buy pints for the other 13-year-olds. By the time he found
himself sitting in his car on the cliffs, one step away from the
devil, Barnes had descended into the hell of alcoholism. His
cycle was always the same: Groggy after dead, dreamless sleep,
he would begin the new day with several cups of coffee, always
fortified by double shots of brandy. After hitting a few balls
at West Chiltington Golf Club in West Sussex, he would move on
to long hours of swilling beer at the pub, then segue to wine at
dinner and drink the evening away. "I had bloody hollow legs,"
Barnes says. Save for his wife, Hilary, and their children, Guy
and Didi, his life was hollow too.
July 7, 1996
No longer. Last week Barnes sat under a striped canopy at the
Golf Center at King's Island in Mason, Ohio. He was studying the
latest Senior tour stats, and his name was all over them: First
in greens in regulation, first in total driving, second in the
all-around category, sixth in scoring, tied for seventh in
birdies and eighth in sand saves. Coming up were the final two
majors of the senior season, this week's U.S. Senior Open
directly followed by the Ford Senior Players Championship, and
Barnes liked his chances. Since turning 50 a year ago on June 3,
he has made more than $400,000 playing golf--$90,000 of it for
winning the British Senior Open last July--and he could bring in
nearly as much over the next three years for using Tommy Armour
clubs. Almost overnight he has become something of a favorite in
the U.S.; at the airport in Cincinnati, some of the limo drivers
dispatched by the tournament had him roll up the sleeves
covering his beefy biceps, joking that they wouldn't recognize
him dressed any other way.
Life has been good since he gave up the bottle not too long
after his brush with death. Only now can Barnes look back and
clearly see what he had become. "I had a capacity that was
bloody unbelievable," he says. "The last years I started hitting
the hard stuff. I wasn't getting the same feeling from the beer.
I had virtually become immune to it. That was the start of the
slippery slope, and that slope can be deadly. Alcohol affects
your nerves, your eyesight, and worst of all, it affects your
The stories are legion. Barnes would regularly tee off with a
liter bottle of vodka and orange juice packed in his bag. At the
Zambia Open one year he quickly threw down three pints of beer
in the clubhouse, checked his watch, then headed for the door.
"I better be going now," he said. "I'm on the 10th tee." At the
Scottish Professional Championship in 1982 he marked his ball on
the 18th green with a beer can, then putted out for the win. In
the final round of the 1981 Haig Whisky Tournament Players
Championship, a tournament sponsor slipped him a six-pack at the
turn, and Barnes drained it while going
eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie, then driving the par-4 17th green
and tapping in for a second eagle in eight holes. He shot 28 on
the back nine, then sat drinking for another two hours while the
other players finished. When he wound up tied for first, he
staggered out and somehow won a four-hole playoff. (Part of his
prize was six cases of whisky.)
At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Barnes--Barnesy, everyone called
him--was larger than life, but he could have been a giant. The
public and the press viewed his drinking as part of his charm,
and he won 16 times, yet his accomplishments did not measure up
to his ability. His parents were Scots. His dad played off
scratch at Barrassie near Royal Troon and was club secretary at
Thurlestone in Devon. Young Brian was pushed toward the game but
rebelled and did not swing a club seriously until he was a
teenager. Then he began lifting weights, and his chest and back
swelled. Britain's Olympic weightlifting coach told Barnes that
if golf didn't work out, he could turn him into Mr. Universe.
Barnes was too shy for that. "Even today people don't realize
there's a shy character behind the extrovert," says Simon Baker,
Barnes's caddie on the Senior tour.
Once he turned his full attention to golf, Barnes succeeded
almost immediately. At 18 he won the 1964 British Youths. Max
Faulkner, the 1951 British Open champion, took Barnes and four
other young players he considered to be the best in Great
Britain--they were called the Butten Boys after British
financier Ernest Butten, who funded Faulkner--under his wing
with the purpose of grooming them into Open champions. Barnes
never did win the Open, although he came close a couple of
times, in 1968 when he finished sixth and in 1972 when he tied
for seventh. He did, however, win the hand of Faulkner's
daughter, Hilary. She used to chauffeur her father in his
Rolls-Royce for training sessions with the Butten Boys. Barnes
always thought she was stuck up. She thought he was too young,
but eventually they began dating. "It was six months before I
kissed her," Barnes remembers. "I think she thought I was gay.
Basically, I was just shy." They were married in 1968.
The defining moment of Barnes's playing career to date came at
the 1975 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley in Ligonier, Pa. European
captain Bernard Hunt matched Barnes against Jack Nicklaus, who
had won the Masters and the PGA that year, in the
Sunday-morning singles, and Barnes won 4 and 2. Nicklaus was
eager for a rematch and had U.S. captain Arnold Palmer ask Hunt
to make it happen. Barnes won again, 2 and 1. "The bigger player
you played him against, the more of a chance you'd get a [good]
result," says Bernard Gallacher, Barnes's teammate in '75.
"Brian needs that type of challenge to get him going."
Somewhere between Laurel Valley and South Downs, though, Barnes
lost his way. A new, improved generation of British players, led
by Nick Faldo, was beginning to emerge. Barnes couldn't keep up,
and his drinking grew worse. By 1984 he had slid to 79th on the
European money list and the year after cut back on his schedule
because he felt he was not good enough anymore. Hilary knew what
was wrong "but it was getting Brian to admit there was a problem
that was difficult," she says. In early '93, one evening not
long after his near-suicide, Barnes and Hilary set out from home
by car to meet Peter Oosterhuis at the Roundabout Hotel, not 800
yards away. "Are you O.K. to drive, dear?" she asked. Enraged,
Barnes shot the car out into traffic and, driving on the wrong
side of the road, made a hard lefthand turn at 70 miles per
hour. Hilary remained silent, but when they pulled into the
parking lot at the hotel, she got out and walked home. "Purely
and simply, I had lost my marbles," Barnes says. "I was insane."
In the pub Oosterhuis bought a pint for Barnes, who took one
sip, put the glass down and drove home. It was his last drink.
The next morning Hilary confronted him, and that night he
admitted himself to King Edward VII Hospital in nearby Midhurst,
still convinced that he was suffering from depression. One of
the doctors there had seen his type of denial before.
"Look," Barnes said, "I'm not here for alcoholism."
"If you're not," said the doctor, "leave it for two weeks and
see how you feel."
Within two days he was in group therapy, and five weeks later he
was back home. When he returned to the European tour in April
for the Air France Cannes Open, the other players couldn't
believe Barnes was sober. Most of them had never seen him in
that condition. Barnes had to make some adjustments too.
"Everything was completely different," he says. "I was sober for
the first time in 20 years. I had to go through a learning curve
again. I used to play when I was on my ass, but I guess it was
because I was fairly natural. I have a farmer's swing. There's
nothing classical about it, but it works."
Unlike most men his age, Barnes couldn't wait to turn 50. No
longer competitive on the Euro tour, he tapped into his life
insurance when the jobs he could scrape together in golf were
not enough to make ends meet. Last year's Senior British Open at
Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland changed everything. By making
an 80-foot eagle putt on the third playoff hole, Barnes defeated
Bob Murphy. A teary Faulkner was the first to congratulate him.
Hilary was there too, making one of her rare appearances at a
tournament. Only twice has she gone on the road with Brian, on
their honeymoon in 1968 when he also played the South African
tour and two years later when he made an aborted effort to join
the U.S. Tour. "There's been a lot of raised eyebrows in Britain
because I'm never with him," she says. "But Brian's a loner. I
feel like the golf course is Brian's office, and women shouldn't
be in the office." Still, Barnes has always been her rock,
although an unsteady one at times. "Not once did I ever consider
leaving him," she says.
They have a different life now. The children have grown up--Guy,
25, is an entertainer and Didi, 27, an aspiring
veterinarian--and so, finally, has their father. He spends his
free afternoons with Faulkner, fishing the lakes and streams of
Sussex. When they have a drink at West Chiltington, where
Faulkner is club president, Barnes orders an orange juice and
soda. When he gets the urge to drink, Barnes remembers the drive
home from West Chiltington shortly after he was released from
the hospital in 1993.
A boy was crossing the road while Barnes was distracted by an
oncoming vehicle. As the car passed in the opposite lane, Barnes
looked up to discover that the boy was nearly under his hood.
Barnes slammed on the brakes, turned the wheel into the shoulder
of the road and missed the child by inches.
The distance between the West Chiltington course and his house
in Storrington is less than two miles. Hundreds, thousands of
times he had made the trip so drunk he could barely see. "Had I
been drinking that day, the little lad would have been under my
wheel and he would have been stone dead," Barnes says. "I
realized then there is a higher power looking after me. Now I
like to think that the past is the past. If I started thinking
too much about the past, I'd start down the road of drinking
again. There are too many exciting times ahead to even think
about the past."
With that, Barnes checks his watch. It's clearly time to