Twilight, that uncertain time when the cheering stops and the real world begins, never has stolen upon Miller Barber. Recently, when ol' Miller and ol' Arnie were engaged in a hot and furious fairway battle—a goodly number of which Barber has been winning lately—the exasperated Palmer turned to his potbellied, bespectacled rival and said crossly, "I'm getting awfully tired of not being able to beat you." Barber chuckled and said, "Now you know how I used to feel."
That's what the PGA Senior Tour is selling—nostalgia. The old days are gone, but the memories linger. How marvelous to say, "Play it again, Sam...and Arnie and Miller and Don! You played it for them, and now you can play it for us." From Snead to Palmer, Barber to January, play it again, guys, the way no one plays it anymore.
It's a colorful, eclectic bunch of over-50 grayheads—or baldheads—out there on the back-brace-and-Ace-bandage circuit, staging an oldtimers' game in which the score still matters. Miller Barber's got the torch now. He's the best. X, as his friends call him—or the "Mysterious Mr. X," to use his full name—is simply tearing them up and adding to his image as a genuine locker-room folk hero. To know him is to love him. Those dark shades, that fat, chunky body, the soft, nasal, east Texas voice that squeaks and, trademark of trademarks, the worst-looking golf swing ever to come down the pike. "Kinda like the saltwater taffy machine at the fair," says his buddy Buck Adams, a North Carolina teaching pro.
X is out there, flying right elbow and all, jista collectin' all this-a-here money and all those titles, having a great time playing the game he loves, the game that gave him something he always wanted—a home.
What a crew he's with, still together after all these years! There's Palmer, ever fearless, hitching up his pants and going for the impossible. And Billy Casper, the best golfer no one remembers, with 51 tour victories and a 15-year span during which he finished among the Top 10 money-winners 14 times, now fat and happy, parading the fairways in electric-blue plus fours and fuchsia shirts, calling attention to himself. Doug Sanders has even dusted off his racy rainbow outfits and resurrected his phone-booth swing. Snead, now 74, with failing eyesight and a tinge of arthritis, plays rarely but he still collects on bets when he jumps and kicks the tops of doors. January, slow-movin', slow-talkin', a walking change of pace, is ambling his way to more money than he ever knew existed.
Golf's oldies but goldies are playing for an incredible $5,131,000 in prize money in 1984, 25 tournaments, with more on the way. It isn't the big leagues, but the bleachers are up around the 18th hole, and when Sunday comes, the heat is on once again.
Part of the appeal of the senior tour is the age of the players. It has accentuated their individualities. Even no-color is appreciated. The bland, repetitive, synchronized swing and nature of Gene Littler now stick out and are applauded in a way they never were 20 years ago. There's something else: These guys can still play. And, says Jack Barry, who used to direct the senior event at Shipyard Plantation on Hilton Head Island, S.C., "This could be the last crop of guys who played the game for fun." In the '60s, Jack Nicklaus came along with his yardage book, the prize money went through the roof, and it became a game of precision and meticulousness, a sport for bookkeepers. And in the '70s all those lookalike college blonds showed up with their golfing-ma-chine swings and there was no fun to be found anywhere.
Today, for players like Orville Moody, who until recently eked out a living as a club manager, pro and greenkeeper in Sulphur Springs, Texas, the senior tour is salvation. "I'm gonna try to fill my money sack this year," says Moody, the winner of two events and $126,587 thus far in '84, his first year as a senior. Moody came to pro golf at 33, when he was mustered out of the Army. Now, at 50, he's young for the first time. "He's our candidate for Rookie of the Year," says Tom Place, the PGA's director of information.
At this year's Legends of Golf tournament in Austin, the place where the senior golf phenomenon took hold in 1978, 120,000 fans turned out. Hundreds ringed the practice green to watch their enduring heroes up close, held back by a rope on which one or more back braces were hung. At one tournament Palmer shot for the pin from 180 yards and then walked up to the green to discover that poor eyesight had deceived him: The pin turned out to be a sand-trap rake. Then he four-putted. And in the locker room, sitting with his feet up and nursing a beer, looking more ursine every day, was Julius Boros. Ol' Julie, who had a quintuple bypass three years ago, was watching television, a women's golf tournament. He'd finished his playing for the day, and it was time to watch. Golf. That's what keeps these guys going.
Even the caddies are into it. Creamy Carolan is back with Palmer, just like he was in the '60s when Arnie was coming out of the trees to make birdies. Carolan is 69 now, and in his wallet he carries a picture of himself as a serviceman at Guadalcanal in 1942, a faded black-and-white snapshot of the way he was.
Palmer, who at 55 affects senior crowds as Michael Jackson moves teenagers, says it's pretty much the same as it was in the old days, with one minor but important distinction. "Thirty years ago, you were playing for your life," says Arnie. "Now, the bottom line is: It isn't as urgent."
Sure. While Palmer's hitting drives down Wall Street and flying his jet, January and Barber are the Big Two among the seniors; January slow and laconic, Barber skittish and wound-up—"He looks like somebody's always chasing him," says Gary McCord, one of Barber's friends from the regular tour.
In a roomful of people, Barber is jittery, a picture that's not quite tuned in right. His eyes dart, he's distracted. But alone, he leans back and crosses his legs. People make him nervous, probably from all the practical jokes that have been played on him. After a life of not being noticed, Barber is now a media event. "Everybody is finding out that as a person and a personality, this guy's something else," says PGA commissioner Deane Beman.
Palmer half-jokingly wonders if Barber's new fame is all for the best. "He's really not as mysterious as everybody thinks," Arnie says. "But why not leave him mysterious? It's kind of nice."
The average age of the 40 regulars on the senior tour is about 57. Half have grown gracefully into tanned and handsome men who could pass for senators; the others resemble farmers. When they read their starting times, they hold the paper at arm's length and squint. In the clubhouse they sit around and talk about who's sick and where's the best cafeteria in town. And they tell Tommy Bolt stories.
"Lightning" Bolt is still a character—at 66 he's as irascible and eccentric as ever. He calls himself "Ol Dad," and everybody else "Son"—and he uses the word "immaculately" a lot, as in: "Son, don't you think Ol Dad is dressed immaculately?" In a poll published by Golf Digest this year, readers voted Bolt and Barber the least-popular players on the senior circuit. Bolt earned the honor rightfully, throwing clubs in every state. Barber won his by default. X marks the spot. No one knows much about him. Now, when Barber and Bolt meet, Barber says, "Hello, No. 1." Bolt answers, "Howdy, No. 2."
Bolt has a saying: "No senior should tee off before 11 a.m." Years ago, when Barber was fresh on the regular tour, he was paired with Bolt in a tournament in which they were given a 7:15 a.m. tee-off time. After four holes and a couple of bogeys, Bolt turned to Barber and said, "Son, what time is it?"
"About 8:20," said Barber.
"What?" yelled Bolt. "Eight-twenty? Well, no wonder. What in the hell are we doing out here? Why, this is when the caddies play."
Things like that don't happen anymore, Barber says. The "young" tour is generic golf. Every blond head the same. Every swing just so perfect. Barber and the others don't hit it as far as they used to, maybe, and perhaps their putters are a little shaky, but playing courses that are, on the average, 400 yards shorter than the kid pros are used to, they can put up the numbers. Barber shot four straight 66s at Melbourne, Fla., in '82, and you know what Gay Brewer told him when X stood over a birdie putt for 65 on the last hole? "Miss it. Don't break your string." Imagine that. Miss it! And Mr. X did. On the junior circuit, the kids don't even talk to each other, much less say something like "Miss it." They sure don't jump into each other's arms as Brewer and Casper did when they teamed to win the Legends last April.
Golf and memories. The seniors still have the scoreboard for their looking glass, and corporations love to have them at their outings and in their commercials. "En-darse-ments," January calls them. "My friends say I ought to do one of those Jerry-tall ads."
Miller Barber is hard at work on the practice tee at the Daytona Beach Seniors Classic, thrilled to be there. He always has worked hard. "He loves to hit golf balls," says his buddy, Ben Crenshaw. He has to love it. Barber's swing is an object of ridicule. Elbows, hips, hands and backside fly every which way when he cuts loose, but the results are wonderful. "He hits more solid golf shots," says Crenshaw. "I mean, even today, at 53, he just hits some really solid golf shots when he's on, better than anybody." Snead once said that from one foot before impact, and then on through to the finish, Barber's swing was the best in golf. Snead didn't add, but he could have, that until Barber gets the club head a foot behind the ball, his swing has more flaws than that of any 28 handicapper. Club pros all over the country have gotten rich selling lessons to players with swings better than Barber's. "Now, what'd I do there? What'd I do there?" Barber says on the practice tee. Adams is tutoring Mr. X. Also present is Morris Hatalsky, a regular on what Barber refers to as "the old tour." He means the regular PGA circuit. The new tour is his tour, the seniors.
"He does it great 99 out of 100 times and wants to know what's wrong," says Adams in exasperation. "He hits one bad and he wants to know what's wrong. Hit it eight feet off-line with a two-iron—what's wrong"! Heck, if Morris could hit it like that, with his nerves and his putting stroke, he could shoot some scores."
This is typical practice-tee banter, especially around Barber. He's one of the most-liked guys in golf because he can take a joke and because he can tell one. When he says something amusing, he purses his lips and then exhales a puff of air to keep from smiling, so that he looks something like a fish breathing.
"I just love the guy," says Crenshaw. "He's funny without trying to be." Barber, like Jimmy Durante, has his looks going for him. And his voice, because of chronic hay fever, comes out high with that twang, and he has the habit of repeating himself. "The man sounds like a mimeograph," says Bob Rosburg. Plus, Barber has a whole sackful of odd sayings—Barberisms, if you will. "You bet your ol' whoopee-boopee, your ol' whoopee-boopee," he'll say. Becoming upset is "getting yourself in a hissy." Talking is "yippity-yippin'."
"Oh, lookee there, Morris," Barber calls out on the practice tee, watching an iron shot fly true. "Lookee there." No golfer wants to be known as a good putter, and Barber is no different. Real men hit one-irons. "Remember the time we played together at Hilton Head?" Barber says to Hatalsky. "Now that was something. I hit about 17 greens and just struggled to a 72. Just struggled. Morris hit about six or seven greens and shot a 67. And he got robbed. Morris got robbed." Barber makes his fish face and stands at attention. After every shot he has to raise his head so he can see out from under the bill of his cap.
Behind him, outside the gallery ropes, some fans are studying him. Intermittently one or another will swing an imaginary club, hands and elbows flying. They wonder, how the hell does Barber do it?
"None of it looks right," Adams agrees. "But the ball keeps going straight." Barber is always fiddling with his swing, or tinkering with his putting stroke. Golfers love to give advice, and Barber enjoys taking it. Anyone can school him. One of his buddies is Joe Stepner, a Santa Monica restaurateur. "He's always asking me for putting lessons," says Stepner, sounding bewildered. "Here I am, a W-handicapper, giving him a putting lesson."
There's a phrase in golf: Keeping it going. You hear players say, "I got it under par, but I couldn't keep it going. I blew up." These days Barber is a star because he can keep it going. Barber, Littler, January and Palmer stepped right from the junior circuit into the senior tour and kept it going. Too many of their contemporaries blew up, both in size and in score.
The last two years, Barber has been Senior Player of the Year, sharing the honor last season with January. Since '81, when he turned 50, Barber has been first, first and second on the senior money list, averaging more than $140,000. January edged him out last season, $237,571 to $231,008, but Barber won the overall money crown, picking up an additional $52,537 in unofficial tournaments for a total of $283,545, beating his best year as a regular tour player, 1977, by more than $35,000. X has won 14 tournaments as a senior, January 15, but January has been at it a year-and-a-half longer.
During his time on the junior tour, Barber was almost a cipher. He was kind of dumpy looking, and didn't have much to say. The Mysterious Mr. X. Palmer and Nicklaus were the stars. Hardly anyone noticed that Barber won a tournament a year for eight straight seasons, 1967-74, a record matched during that period only by Nicklaus. Barber twice made the Ryder Cup team. And with the $655,543 he has picked up on the senior circuit, his total of $2.2 million puts him in eighth place, only $25,076 behind Palmer on the alltime money list.
Now, back on the practice tee, there's a small excavation where Barber has carved out his divots. Hatalsky is watching closely. Adams says, "Did you ever see Hogan play, Morris?" Ben Hogan, the great iconoclast, now 72 and living in Fort Worth, is the only player of stature who has shunned the senior circuit. He once told a friend, "If you win, what do you win?" That sentiment partly explains his disinterest. There's also the car wreck that almost killed him in 1949. "He just hurts all over," says Jackie Burke. Barber once tried to entice his friend Hogan onto the oldies' circuit. Sitting with the great man at the annual dinner in Fort Worth hosted by Hogan's golf company, Barber worked up the courage to ask Hogan to be his teammate in the Legends.
"No," said Hogan.
Says Barber, "With Mr. Hogan, a few words go a long way."
It's a pity Hogan isn't there. Sure, Snead, Casper, Palmer, Barber and the others are only replicas of what they once were, but a treasure doesn't lose its value just because it has a coating of dust.
Hatalsky tells Adams that no, he had never seen Hogan play.
Adams nods his head. "Well, I'll tell you," he says. "If he ever lost his balance, he'd just walk in. If he didn't reach a perfect position every time, he'd be so mad...damn, what a mechanical man."
Barber grew up in the northeast corner of Texas, in Texarkana. The town is divided by the Texas-Arkansas border, which is marked by different colored bricks running down the center of State Line Avenue. "You can have one foot in Texas and the other in Arkansas," says Barber. But he was born in Shreveport, La., true to his manner, just sneaking up on everyone. His parents were visiting relatives there when Miller showed up, several hours before April Fools' Day, 1931, three weeks before he was expected. He was an only child. His parents split three years later, and his mother, Susie Mae, and his grandmother, Kitty, raised him. The whole family worked in Bryce's Cafeteria in Texarkana. Bryce, Susie Mae's brother, was off at the war, and the women were keeping the home fries burning. When he got a little older, Miller helped out, preparing vegetables, busing dishes and bringing out the food trays. He recalls an occasional celebrity coming in for lunch at Bryce's. Gene Autry and Orson Welles were two.
Golf was just something he picked up. He could play during the day, as long as he made it on his bicycle to Bryce's by 8 p.m. to escort his mother home. Because it was wartime, his golf bag was nothing more than shellacked cardboard. Late at night, he and his buddies would dive in a lake for balls at a local country club. One night the club manager caught them and sentenced them to a month of swabbing toilets.
Byron Nelson had a big influence on Barber's career. Nelson was married to a woman from Texarkana and would come to town to practice for the Masters. Barber would caddie for Nelson, a mission so important that Miller would wash his tennis shoes for the occasion. The first time he worked for Nelson, Barber took the shag bag and stood out in a field about 100 yards down range. Nelson's first shot hit the bill of Barber's cap. Nelson started waving Barber to come in. When the boy was within earshot, Nelson told him not to stand by the shag bag. That was his target. "One day he played 18 holes and hit the pin 10 times with shots," Barber says. "I'll never forget that as long as I live."
Shortly after enrolling at Texas A&M to satisfy Susie Mae and Kitty, who thought the military atmosphere would be beneficial to him, Barber transferred to Arkansas. He played on the golf team, but back then there wasn't such a thing as a golf scholarship, so he was listed on the football roster. He even thought about playing running back. Pat Summerall, the television announcer and former NFL star, played for the Razorbacks at the time. As Summerall says, "This guy got wiped out on one play and came back to the huddle peering through an earhole of his helmet. He said, 'I gotta find me another——game.' " That was the last time Barber scrimmaged.
After college, Barber, an ROTC guy, wound up in the Air Force, stationed at Sherman, Texas. One of his friends there was Herb Somers, who went on to become a gynecologist in Philadelphia. "Miller's still the same guy he was back then," says Somers. "He loves life." Today when Somers calls his old buddy, he yells into the phone, "Suuuu-eeee!" giving the Arkansas yell. "How 'bout them Hogs?" Barber yells back.
That Barber has made more than $2 million on the golf tour is almost incomprehensible, considering that he couldn't make pocket money when he started in 1959. "He wasn't much of a player," recalls Burke. "But he was a big, solid guy. Those guys last. The little skinny uns burn out." A hole in one in Seattle in 1961 was worth $10,000, which helped clear some debts, but at season's end Barber was back to a flat wallet. He'd won $7,939 in three years. Rosburg got him a job as a teaching pro at The Apawamis Club in Rye, N.Y.
After a year of seasoning under the late Jacques Patroni, Barber was ready to try the circuit once again. He had become a bit of a celebrity in the New York area, winning all the local tournaments. At Apawamis, 60 members put up $100 apiece so Barber could go on the '63 PGA Tour. To them he was just another amusing investment that also gave them golf lessons. But this investment paid off. Barber won $20,764 and at the end of the year gave each backer $200. After that he was on his own.
In the 1963 Oklahoma City Open, he was tied for the lead on the last hole, with a 15-foot birdie putt facing him. He whispered to Dow Finsterwald, "I'm going to lag it."
"What?" said Finsterwald, stunned. "You go for it!"
Barber did—and three-putted to finish fourth. Back at the motel, Palmer congratulated him for his courage. Barber dropped the word "lag" from his vocabulary. He always went for it. "I bopped at it," he says. "Won some and lost some." Says January, "You can't hide a pin from him. When he's on, boy, is he hard to beat."
The tour became Barber's home address; he almost never took a week off. When he wasn't playing, he holed up in the Ramada Inn in Sherman, paying by the week. From the end of 1964 through 1978, Barber won 11 tournaments. Palmer, who's 18 months older, won 16 during the same period, not counting three team championships with Nicklaus. But while Arnie was buzzing the courses on Sunday evenings in his jet, Miller would be loading up the car and heading for the Interstate. Counting his pennies, he'd drive Sanders' auto while Sanders flew from tournament to tournament.
Barber's reputation for frugality became legend. One day, Barber, Rosburg and Ray Floyd ran into some women in Miami Beach. Barber made a big show of announcing that he'd buy dinner. Outside the restaurant Barber slipped Rosburg his credit card and asked him to handle the check. Says Rosburg, "I don't think he knew how to use it."
As the years passed, Barber's biggest disappointment was his failure to win a major title. He came closest at the 1969 U.S. Open at the Champions Golf Club in Houston, the headquarters of his old buddy Burke and the late Jimmy Demaret. Barber took a three-stroke lead into the final round, but faded to a 78. That same year, Barber finished seventh at the Masters, tied for fifth at the PGA and was 10th at the British Open.
Never won a major. That's like a baseball player who can't hit in October. "I had my chances," Barber says. "I could've won 'em all."
During his two decades of trying, Barber became an inside joke. The players loved him. Week to week, he was good for a laugh. He was the Mysterious Mr. X, not only for his secretive manner but also because he kept turning up in out-of-the-way places, usually by himself or on the track of a good-looking woman. X was a bachelor. "He had money, a nice car, and people knew who he was," says January. "He played it to the hilt."
"One night I saved his life at Condon's," says Rosburg. "X was over in a corner, eating by himself, and the next thing we knew, he was facedown in the plate. He had taken some pills for his hay fever and passed out. I always say I saved him from drowning in his linguine."
People joked that Barber's hair fell out when he was in his 20s, from worrying about golf. He didn't care. He'd spot an attractive female fan, and he'd doff his cap. "Put your hat back on, Miller," January would yell. "Put the hat back on." In the locker room, guys with thick manes would pat Barber's smooth top. "Looks good, X," they'd smirk.
Surreptitiously, Barber bought a toupee. It's easy to visualize him putting it on, patting down the edges and nodding in satisfaction. Rosburg was waiting for Barber in a restaurant one day when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and saw a stranger. He thought he'd been mistaken for someone else. Then he felt another tap and turned around to see the same stranger, who said in an unmistakable, high-pitched whine, "Rossie, it's me. It's X. It's X."
His ungainly swing aside, Barber's fighting the odds every time he walks on a course. He still carries a large satchel—"my shaving kit"—that contains all the tablets, capsules and sprays needed to control his sneezing, his watering eyes and nose. "I'm just runnin' like a faucet, like a faucet," Barber always says whenever anyone asks him how he's feeling.
"He probably lost a lot of tournaments because of the hay fever," says Rosburg in all seriousness. "One year he was tied for the lead at Orlando and he started sneezing on the 72nd tee. He grabbed a pill—his last one—and when he went to take it, he sneezed again and it popped up in the air and fell into a lake. Now he was really stuck. He topped his tee shot, bogeyed the hole and lost the tournament by a shot."
Says Crenshaw, "X thinks of himself as a walking disaster. He says, 'I look in the mirror in the morning, and there staring at me is the face of adversity.' Everything happens to X. I think he carries a snakebite kit in his satchel. He's always calling out for help—from a doctor, a tournament official. It's amazing. We kid him about his exclamations. They sound like they came from a comic book: Blam! Blooey! Blip! One year we're playing a practice round for the PGA, and three of us are up on the green and there's no X. Where's X? Finally, here he comes, talking to himself. Back in the rough, an elderly man had fallen over dead right next to him. X told us, 'He fell over dead, blip! Just like that, blip!' "
On an airplane, Barber would confidently tell the other players how smart he'd been to arrange for a courtesy car to meet him in the next tour town. "Got to think ahead," X would say. Then at the airport, as the other players pulled away in cabs or rental cars, Barber would be standing morosely, his bags piled up around him, muttering to himself as he waited for his car.
Then there were his sayings. If he missed a putt, X would cry out, "I had a nerve snap," or in self-reproach, "I just had to stab it." If he was playing a practice round against some young guys and an opponent made a bogey on a crucial hole, X, always the Arkansas fan, would call out gleefully, "Fumble, and the Piggies recover on the 10-yard line." Of course, after X finally got married at 39, the guys roared when they learned that his wife, Karen, had a pet name for him: "Precious."
One day Barber yelled for help on the practice tee. Crenshaw said, "Darn, X, you're swinging too fast." Barber shook his head and said, "Now I'm gonna play a little game. I'm gonna act like I'm a big cat and that ball there is a little ol' bird. And I'm gonna sneak up on that bird and whop off his head with my club." Sure enough, the other players started asking Barber: "Whop that little bird today, X?"
On a stop in Japan, Barber, the veteran world traveler, smugly assigned himself the role of interpreter. After all, he had been in the Air Force. X used sign language. At dinner he sometimes wound up with an entree of ice cream and iced tea—mixed together. "Will you look at this?" Barber would say. "Will you look at this?"
There have been several chapters in Barber's life, and the cement that holds him together is his marriage to Karen, who, in 1970, was a 26-year-old Houston divorcee. She brought along with her three small sons, Casey, Doug and Brad, now 22, 20 and 18, respectively. One night on the telephone, after they had been dating for some time, Barber said to Karen out of the blue, "We need to get married."
"Why, we don't have to do that," she said, surprised. Barber wasn't proposing as much as he was changing identities.
"Let's do it," he said. The day after the ceremony, he left for the Western Open.
Two more sons—Larry, now 12, and Richard, who's 10 and a fast talker, like Dad—subsequently joined the family. Five boys, plus X. What a load! Karen, like Susie Mae and Kitty, is a strong woman. She handled it all right. When X is out on the tour, she keeps the home fires burning.
The family settled in Sherman, a town 60 miles north of Dallas, named after Colonel Sidney Sherman, who's credited with hollering "Remember the Alamo!" To Barber, the other big thing Sherman has going for it is that it isn't too far from Texarkana. Plus, he has a bunch of friends there from his days in the service. Blip! Just like that—blip!—he bought a house there.
The Barbers live in a quiet neighborhood dotted with backyard basketball goals. They have two of them, including a short one so the smaller kids can slam-dunk. Two of the older boys, Casey and Doug, have moved out, but Brad, Larry and Richard keep things hopping. Two seconds after Richard has been introduced to a stranger, he asks him, "Want to see me hit a golf ball out of the creek?" The kids all love X, but they give him the needle. They call him "Mildred," a nickname he picked up in college.
"Daddy, what'd you shoot today?" Richard asks his dad after a nine-hole practice round.
Barber sort of swells with a touch of pride. "I shot two under," he says.
"Two under?" wails Richard. "That's sorrry."
"Well I'd like to see you do it," Barber yelps.
There are pictures all over the walls, framed collages of the family, snapshots taken and pasted together by Karen. There is also a palpable feeling of love. Barber has a regular glossary of terms of endearment for Karen: Honey, Baby and, his favorite, Buppie. Even the neighborhood kids call Karen that. One will walk out back of the house and say to her, "Hey, Bup, Mr. Barber wants you out front."
Karen cooks, cuts the grass and takes care of Spike, the gerbil and a pet duck, and even feeds the three squirrels that live inside the garage roof. She drives the "war wagon," the family station wagon that has 87,000 miles on it and a radio that doesn't work.
Over the years, her husband, the man called X, has put on way more miles than that, and been just as reliable. He's firmly loyal—to that crazy swing, which everyone has tried to change; to his college, Arkansas, for which he helps recruit football players; to the Dallas Cowboys, another of his loves; to Texarkana, which he still visits regularly, always stopping by Bryce's Cafeteria.
Maybe that is what Hogan liked about Barber—the loyalty. Nobody will ever be as mechanical as Hogan, but X comes close. His swing taught him that there was no wrong way to do anything. You just did what felt right, what worked.
And so, when Barber's old caddie, Roy Stone, turned 65 in 1976, too old to work anymore, Barber fixed it for him. He paid Roy's back Social Security taxes. They came to about $12,000, but it meant Roy would have an income. He'd be taken care of. Stone had carried bags for Hogan, Nicklaus, Snead, Nelson, all the great ones. Barber had started off carrying, too, and so one more time he could pull his share. "Roy's like family," says Barber.
Stone, now 73, lives in Fort Worth. When he was on the tour, he was visible through an odd trademark: He always wore khakis, tennis shoes and a jack-o'-lantern smile. For dress-up, he'd put on some of Barber's old clothes, usually mixing several shades of brown. "I drove Miller's car," says Stone proudly. Occasionally while X was off playing, Roy would help Karen out around the house. To this day, the Barber kids love him. "Me and the little ones still have a time," Stone says.
These days, as X is creating memories on the senior tour, he is also collecting them. He has played with three Presidents: Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford. His sons have a collection of autographed footballs from players Barber has known. "He loves his Hogs," says Karen. When Barber is home, he reads the Arkansas Gazette every day, keeping track of the Razorbacks. And if an Arkansas game is on television, he plants himself in front of it. He has a GO HOGS GO shirt and official Razorback football shoes. There is one of those frightful hogshead hats in the house, but Barber claims it belongs to the kids. "Put on your hog hat, Daddy," they yell when a visitor sees it.
"I'm fixin' to tan somebody's hide," warns Barber.
"O.K., Mildred," Richard says.
On the course, tee to green, Barber is still a master. But his putting, once so reliable, comes and goes, eroded by the years. There's a lot of money to be made, though, enough that people refer to X's caddie, Herman Mitchell, as Jesse James. Mitchell, a massive, rotund fellow who also caddies for Lee Trevino, doesn't have to carry Barber's clubs, except at an occasional tournament that bars carts. He drives, X walks. It's a winning combo.
Barber has his home and his family, and now he has his majors. X has won all of the "new" tour's Big Three: the U.S. Open (twice), the PGA and the Tournament Players Championship—all with "Senior" appended to them, of course. But what does that matter, really? He never has to shine his shoes. When he comes back to his locker at the end of the day, there they are, all buffed and polished. "It's just like years ago," says X.
Barber figures he'll keep on going until he can't win. "We all know when we can't do it anymore," he says. "When that time comes, I'll quit." Now when he wins a tournament, Karen snips the articles and adds them to the family files. All X ever wanted to do was shoot in the 60s, and he's still doing it, still doing it.
He has grown into his role as a champion. There are no Golden Boys now to take away his thunder. But at heart, he remains Mr. X. On the course, in his disguise, he could be playing in isolation. No charisma, no emotion, just him and golf.
One afternoon as Barber walked off the green, oblivious as always, an elderly woman, miffed at his phlegmatic demeanor, said crossly, "Why don't you smile?" For a second Barber gave a little start. Then he resumed walking. Hey, Arnie, he's still mysterious.
To Karen, he's "Precious.'' To Richard, he's "Mildred." But to Arnold Palmer, X is no mystery man.
Brewer (above) may be pulling bass-ackwards, but Palmer has not backed off one grimace.
Bolt (above) doesn't miss the early wake-up calls. For Casper, January and Sanders (below, left to right), early retirement means playing for purses worth almost $5 million.
Barber's flying right elbow is a definite no-no, but it's helped him pitch $2 million into the bank.
Golf came into Barber's life sometime between two other love interests: home cooking and Karen.
Barber travels everywhere with his hay-fever remedies, but his hog hat, which Larry wears to celebrate X's beloved Razorbacks, stays at home.
Barber's X-tended family catches its hero, who's never on the ropes; from left, Casey, Karen, ex-caddie Stone, Richard, Doug, Larry and Brad.
There's still plenty of Susie Mae's little boy left in Barber.