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The Worst Night's Sleep of Ricky Barnes's Life
As his head hit the pillow last night, his thoughts swirled and the Cimmerian fog of sleep ebbed and eddied in his mind, Ricky Barnes had to be more than just restless. He had to toss and turn worse than the girl in the old fairy tale, "The Princess and the Pea."
Yesterday ended dismally for him. After nine holes of the third round of the Bathpage - er, Bathpage - U.S. Open, Barnes was a runaway leader, six shots clear of the field and double-digits under par. His nearest competitor, unheralded Lucas Glover, whose only win came in 2005 at the Funai Classic at the Walt Disney World Resort, looked to foundering, dropping shots left and right. Phil Mickelson was treading water, hovering around even-par, and Tiger Woods was well behind Barnes, which meant the roughest seas were past, and smooth sailing and clear skies lay ahead.
Barnes's eagle on the par-5 fourth hole put him at 11-under for the tournament, rarified air at a U.S. Open. Few have ever been under par in this tournament: Jim Furyk at Olympia Fields in 2003 and Woods at Pebble Beach in 2002. Had Barnes continued to play steadily and prove the eventual winner, that eagle might have been the watershed shot of his career and the signature moment of this otherwise dull U.S. Open, an Open that venerable golf pundit Sal Johnson already calls the Asterisk Open, since it may prove to be decided not by what happens today, but by the weather Thursday which blew away half the field, ruining their tournament chances.
Now, however, just 10 holes later, Barnes looked more like the third man to ever reach double digits in a U.S. Open: Dr. Gil Morgan, who also breezed into a gargantuan lead midway through the 1992 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, and who, after a ghastly collapse for the ages, is now a cautionary tale, a footnote, and pretty solid bar bet winner if you want to stump your drinking buddies.
Barnes and Glover also look like John Schlee and Jerry Heard. Back in 1973, Schlee and Heard were their generation's Barnes and Glover, an unlikely tandem leading the final round of the U.S. Open at Oakmont. Schlee turned to Heard shortly after they teed off and asked, "What are we doing leading the U.S. Open?" Right on cue, they fell as though their parachutes failed to open, and Johnny Miller roared past to win with his legendary 63.
Before the final round, Barnes was still tied with Glover, but he looked far less steady. Glover leads the field after three rounds in greens in regulation, (44 of 54, for 81.5%) and is T-6 in driving accuracy, (33 of 42, 78.5%). That's the formula at a U.S. Open. Hit the fairway, hit the green, have the hottest week of your life with the putter, collect the trophy, and smile for the cameras. In fact, Glover hit 13 of 14 yesterday, and looked far steadier than Barnes as the day closed. Barnes, who had only one bogey in the first 36 holes, had five in his last 10 holes of play yesterday. Worse still, he looked like Rickety Barnes: he lost both his tempo and timing. His arms, legs, body suddenly swooping, jerking, and swaying. "I've got to get my arms moving with my legs. We all know that those go together."
They certainly do, Ricky, they certainly do.
Barnes was sent off at 7:37 p.m. last night, but got in only one hole and one shot to start his final round. He may wish he'd never walked out to start. He drove weakly at the first, low and left, then chunked his approach for an opening bogey. At the second, he swung worse than my girlfriend, reverse-pivoting, flailing his arms manically, and swaying like a Deadhead entranced by some jam in "Uncle John's Band." He couldn't get off the golf course fast enough when the horn sounded. He looks beaten and defeated already. Losing a six-shot lead on the game's biggest stage will do that.
So who will grab the brass ring Barnes seems so intent on releasing? Glover? He is playing steady golf, but he's untested in the crucible of pressure that is a major golf championship. He could fold just as easily. When players break, they break hard and jagged, and frequently both players in a final pairing can play the same: either spurring each other on to unbelievable heights like Nicklaus and Watson at Turnberry in '77, or combining their bad juju, and both plummeting out of the sky and out of sight like Retief Goosen and Jason Gore at Pinehurst in '05.
There's another great example of a huge lead flushed. Goosen went to bed that Saturday night as the defending champion, a two-time U.S. Open winner, and a three-shot leader. He's a Dockers-wearing robot, the Iron Goose. Others might have folded, but surely not him.
The next thing we knew, there were Goose feathers all over the front nine.
Glover and Barnes slept on a five-shot lead over five players last night: David Duval, Ross Fisher, Hunter Mahan, Phil Mickelson, and Mike Weir. Even so, you and I and everyone else knew this was anything but a two-man race. Two shots back at even par lurked Tiger Woods, who despite being T-27 in putting this week, and who has missed every big putt he needed, is still in this thing, along with Graeme McDowell, Retief Goosen, Bubba Watson and Peter Hansen.
While I feel for both Barnes and Glover, this tournament needs a superstar winner to save it from the scrapheap of history, a short list of Opens we'd rather forget. Their collapse is the tournament's gain. Woods and Mickelson were supposed to be the story this week, but it seemed unlikely to materialize after Woods opened with 74 and typically mercurial Mickelson traded birdies and bogeys.
But Mickelson endured. "I felt if I could shoot under par, I would give myself an opportunity going into the final round . . . there aren't many guys in front of me and if I can get a little momentum going, I can make up the difference." That's a lot easier when the final pairing looks lost.
Woods also can still charge to victory. "64s and 65s are out there. I hit it, as all week, a lot better than my scoring indicates." He was 10 back starting the final round, but that's a much shorter 10 because he's just two away from the logjam. Sure, he'll need Barnes and Glover to falter, but they've shown us anything but steady golf over the last ten holes. It may only get worse for them.
As this story went to press, Barnes scrambled to put up two all-American pars at two and three, once from a ghastly spinach patch of rough, and the other from a deep bunker, but he can't keep doing that all day. He got to the big lead with fairways and greens, and only fairways and green will do today, the biggest day of his life. If he keeps making mistakes, he'll hit the chamber with the bullet in it, and if he keeps fighting his swing - his tempo and timing are just as off in the first two holes as they were at the finish yesterday, he'll find nothing but trouble.
So try to sleep on that. Try to rest easily knowing you may go down in infamy as having blown a comeback story for the ages. Here was Barnes, the golden boy winner of 2002 U.S. Amateur, on the verge of erasing seven long, terrible years of doldrums and living up to all his potential, now on national television co0llapsing in front of everyone. Try to sleep fitfully knowing you may be the next in a long line of U.S. Open cautionary tales. Try to quiet your mind and body while knowing five different major champions are in a pack nipping at your heels.
It had to be the worst night's sleep of his life.
Since launching his first golf writing website in 2004, http://www.jayflemma.thegolfspace.com, Jay Flemma's comparative analysis of golf designs and knowledge of golf course architecture and golf travel have garnered wide industry respect. In researching his book on America's great public golf courses (and whether they're worth the money), Jay, an associate editor of Cybergolf, has played over 220 nationally ranked public golf courses in 37 different states. Jay has played about 1,649,000 yards of golf - or roughly 938 miles. His pieces on travel and architecture appear in Golf Observer (www.golfobserver.com), Cybergolf and other print magazines. When not researching golf courses for design, value and excitement, Jay is an entertainment, copyright, Internet and trademark lawyer and an Entertainment and Internet Law professor in Manhattan. His clients have been nominated for Grammy and Emmy awards, won a Sundance Film Festival Best Director award, performed on stage and screen, and designed pop art for museums and collectors. Jay lives in Forest Hills, N.Y., and is fiercely loyal to his alma maters, Deerfield Academy in Massachusetts and Trinity College in Connecticut.