State of the Hogs: Miller Barber

They called him "Mr X," but Miller Barber would have rather been called Razorback. Barber was the first great golfer produced by the University of Arkansas. He passed at age 82.

It was called the Roy Clark/Skoal Bandit Senior Classic. It was played in June of 1984 at Tulsa Country Club.

As the Tulsa World's golf writer, it was my beat to cover it from start to finish. That means doing all of the advance work, including a visit to a few Senior PGA Tour stop to gather some advance columns.

One of my early goals was to get some "sit down" time with Miller Barber, my dad's favorite PGA Tour player after he finished school at Arkansas in 1954. My father's instructions were simple, "Just introduce yourself as an Arkansas native and everything else will fall in place. It won't hurt to tell him how things are going in Fayetteville. He'll want to know."

Yup, he wanted to know. He wanted an update from spring practice and the details from quarterback to offensive guard and what was happening with the kicking game. Most of it he already knew.

Barber's nickname on the PGA Tour during his 41 triumphs (11 on the regular tour, the rest on the Senior Tour) was Mr. X, apparently because he disappeared into the night during his bachelor days.

I inquired about that with good friend Don January at Tulsa CC in 1984. He really didn't think Barber all that mysterious because often they were in the same car going from one tour stop to the next.

Barber, who died at age 82 Tuesday, won the Tulsa event, coming from behind in the final round. He birdied three of the last four holes to catch the lead group, most notably Peter Thomson, the man with five British Open championships.

I got to know Barber pretty well that week in Tulsa. We sat together in the locker room three or four times talking Arkansas football stuff. It well enough that he recognized me walking behind the ropes between the 14th green after he putted out for a routine par and headed to the next tee.

That was during a day when there were no electronic leader boards scattered around the course. Barber called my first name and asked the leader's score to par. I knew it.

"That puts me two back," Barber said. "Let's see what I can do about it coming home."

Birdie, par, birdie, birdie did the trick. Barber, born in Shreveport and raised in Texarkana, took the trophy.

That may have been one that he sent to the UA for display. It was soon after that he called Frank Broyles from his home in Sherman, Texas. He wondered if there might be a place in the lobby at Barnhill Arena where they could be placed.

Former UA athletic director Frank Broyles followed Barber's career for many years. He said it was a daily ritual to check the PGA Tour scores for Barber's name.

"Every day, that's what I did first when the paper came, look for Miller's score," Broyles said, noting that never did he have to go to the bottom of the list and rarely to the "failed to qualify" list.

"He was a great player and more importantly, a wonderful Razorback. He was so proud of his ties and never stopped calling or coming back. He was so proud of his legacy as a Razorback and what was going on with our program in all sports.

"I know our golf coaches were pleased to have his trophies. They helped with recruiting. He was pleased to help in any way possible and he was always interested in our program. He was a great person, a wonderful personality."

Barber had about as much hardware as the UA track team. One of his trophies was from the World Open Golf Championship, a unique eight-round tournament in 1973 at Pinehurst, N.C., that was played over two weekends with a record $500,000 purse, the winner's check at an unheard of $100,000.

Among his prizes were five majors on the Senior Tour, including three U.S. Senior Opens. Barber had some notable playoff battles with the stars of the game, beating Gary Player in the 1967 Oklahoma City Open and losing to Arnold Palmer and Player in the 1964 Pensacola Open and to Jack Nicklaus in the 1973 New Orleans Open.

There were seven top 10 finishes in major titles on the regular tour. The biggest near miss came in 1969 at the U.S. Open in Houston when he took a three-shot lead into the final round, but a 78 left him three back of Orville Moody. Barber was in the final group in the 1969 Masters, but fell back with a 74.

Generally, the most talked about aspect of Barber's game was his swing. His flying elbow at the top made even the top players in the game stop and stare on the practice tee. Golf fans who didn't know Barber would whisper about it as they watched from behind the ropes.

I asked Barber about it before that victory in Tulsa. Did he ever try to change it?

"Several times," he said. "I know it's ugly. I got tired of people talking about it and suggesting things. I was determined to change it after about my second or third year on Tour. January and I were riding from tournament to tournament out of the same car, sharing gas money. I was playing horribly. Finally, January told me I better go back to my old swing or I wouldn't be able to pay for gas.

"I know it's not the way it's supposed to look, but fortunately, I don't have to look at it."

I asked January about that story.

"Yeah, I don't know why he wanted to change it in the first place," January said. "If you want to see something pretty, watch Miller's swing from about 12 inches before impact and about 12 inches after impact.

"There is no one in the game that is as square through impact as Miller is with that swing. In the hitting zone, it's picture perfect. What he does before that doesn't really matter."

Barber didn't experiment with his flying elbow for long. It was present for most of his 1,297 pro starts, 694 on the PGA Tour and 603 on what is now called the Champions Tour.

Barber was also known as one of the top drivers of the golf ball on Tour. A part of two winning Ryder Cup teams, he won numerous long drive events staged at Tour events.

"He's sneaky long," January said. "Even as a Senior Tour player, he's the best driver of the golf ball that we have. He puts it where he wants more often than anyone we have out here.

"And to think that some thought he needed to get that flying elbow out of his swing. We should all swing it as good as Miller Barber."

After a few more questions to Barber about his flying elbow, he reached and tapped me on the knee and said, "Can you tell me how the Hogs are going to be in the defensive secondary next fall?"

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