From floundering to front-runner

6/21/2009 - Golf Ricky Barnes

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. -- Your U.S. Open leader wears a white painter's hat. You don't know whether to ask him about his opening 36-hole scoring record or for advice on gloss versus semigloss.

"Something different," Ricky Barnes said.

Barnes was talking about his cap, not his you're-kidding-me two-round total of 132, which puts him at 8 under par and, incredibly enough, atop the Open leaderboard. He was one of 14 golfers who hadn't teed off yet Saturday night when rain halted play in the third round.

Just in case you've forgotten -- and almost everyone has -- let me reintroduce Barnes to you. Big dude (6-foot-2, 200 pounds) … his old man, Bruce Barnes, played for the New England Patriots … won the 2002 U.S. Amateur … low amateur at the 2003 Masters, where he beat playing partner Tiger Woods by 7 strokes in Round 1 … supposed to be the Next Big Thing … turned pro … disappeared off the face of the golf planet.

Now here he is again -- older (28), smarter, humbler. A lot humbler. These rounds of 67 and 65 parachute him back into the majors drop zone, but it all means zilch if he disappears again into the land of double-bogeys.

"Could I have predicted that was I going to shoot 132?" Barnes said. "Absolutely not. Did I know I had it in me? Yeah."

Congratulations, Ricky. Because other than you, your brother Andy (his caddie for the Open) and other immediate family members, absolutely nobody on the Bethpage Black premises thought you had it in you. Dry ice-cold, but true.

"I've grown up," Barnes said. "I obviously thought that after my college career, I'd be out here [on the tour] right away. … Not getting early success, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't really pissed off the first two or three years."

Golf has a way of knee-capping its young. One day, you're making Woods look like the amateur at Augusta National (Barnes was 6 strokes ahead of Woods after the first two rounds of the '03 Masters); the next, you're begging for sponsor exemptions and your family is begging you to step away from the game for a while.

Barnes is the 519th-ranked player in the world. He had to sweat out getting his PGA Tour card this year -- his first since turning pro six years ago -- and he had to qualify for the U.S. Open. His best finish this season is a T-49 at the recent St. Jude Classic. So, no, he wasn't exactly the people's choice to be the halfway leader of the Open.

"If you compare it to the college player of the year … the guy in basketball is going to get drafted in the top 10 and he's going to get a three-year stint, he's going to settle down in the NBA, he's probably going to come off the bench and he's going to earn his stripes," Barnes said. "Here, you get kind of thrown in the pack of wolves. You got to go to Q-school and you've got to earn it. But I like it. The only guy I can blame is the guy in the mirror."

The guy in the mirror played in his first Open when he was 19. He thought he'd be in the HOV lane for a tour card. He didn't figure he'd be a what's-his-name by 2009, a golf afterthought.

Barnes' golf strategy used to be this: Nuclear bomb a driver, go find it, stick it close with a short iron, make a putt and wave to the adoring crowd. But his swing wasn't built for the long run, and it caught up with him. So did the competition.

"There's a lot of good golfers in this world that you've never heard of," Andy Barnes said. "I think that was the tough part. He just thought, 'I can compete with everybody,' and he just didn't know everybody was that good."

He does now. He knows it doesn't matter if you were the Pac-10 freshman of the year or a first-team All-American at Arizona or even the U.S. Amateur champion. It doesn't matter if you were low amateur at Augusta National and stuck it to Woods for a couple of days. What matters is how you finish, and Barnes hasn't been a closer. (Historical note: Woods finished a stroke ahead of Barnes at the '03 Masters.)

"Two rounds don't make a tournament, a career," Andy Barnes said.

An Open championship would be a nice start. But the last time Ricky Barnes started out this hot (a 67-64 at the 2003 Las Vegas Invitational), he followed with a third-round 76 and eventually missed the cut in the five-round event. And that was in Vegas, not at the U.S. Open.

This is Barnes' fifth Open. He's gone missed cut (2000), missed cut (2002, also at Bethpage), T-59 (2003), missed cut (2007) and now sole possession of the lead through 36 holes in 2009. Until Saturday, he had never led a tour event after any round.

"A few people remember when I was here in '02," he said.

It wasn't supposed to work out this way. Barnes had star quality and hunk status. That was what everyone said.

What he didn't have was enough of a dependable swing, enough patience, enough slivers of luck. He was good, but you can buy good in the pro shop. Being great requires something altogether different.

But guess what? Barnes, who has retooled his swing over the years, is at 8-under and his old buddy Woods is 11 strokes behind at 3-over.

Of course, it helps that The Black is playing, well, not easy, but not its usual razor-wire self. The greens are as soft as hammock pillows and, unlike in past Opens, the fairways are actually wider than Woods' waist.

Barnes is leading this thing because he has one bogey in 36 holes. He hasn't had to punch out of the rough a single time on the gargantuanly long par-4s. That means he's been spending a lot of quality time in the fairways or first cuts. And he lucked out on the draw, too, playing in the non-downpour days and times.

"It's pretty cool," Barnes said. "Obviously at the beginning of the week, you didn't think that score was out there."

Truth is, nobody knew Barnes was out there. All that changed Saturday.

Only one request: Lose the hat.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at gene.wojciechowski@espn3.com. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here.