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?
was a really fat kid. Chris Farley fat. Fatter than The Sandlot
LaRose. "It's almost as if he's still learning how good he really
then passed him a piece of paper with her number on it during play.