Monday, April 14, 2003

Amateur Barnes makes 15 minutes last 72 holes

Florida Today

AUGUSTA, Ga. - He returns to normal life today, but nothing will seem normal again for Ricky Barnes. His 15 minutes of fame stretched over 72 holes . . . at the Masters. It doesn't get much better than that.

Barnes was the little amateur who could, the guy who outplayed Tiger Woods when the two went mano-a-tiger over the first 36 holes and the guy who hovered around the leaderboard a whole lot longer than amateurs are supposed to do.

After starting the tournament with a 69, playing in a threesome with Woods, who soothed him early with calming words, Barnes finished 3-over par. In between, he was second on the leaderboard as late as 5:20 p.m. Saturday, a day that saw him play with Woods in the morning, finishing up round two, and Phil Mickelson in the afternoon, in round three.

He outplayed them both.

In fact, Barnes only finished a stroke behind Woods for the tournament - "Tiger got me on the last hole," he said with a smile - and finished tied for 21st overall.

Not bad for a guy who made the tournament as the U.S. Amateur champion, a 22-year-old who today will be heading back to classes at the University of Arizona. Even before he left Augusta for Arizona, Barnes knew what he'd be thinking when he got back to class, and it wasn't about books, homework and grades.

"I'm going to sit there and think, 'God, I was just at the Masters. What am I doing here?"'

Every year there seems to be at least one amateur who becomes an early Cinderella story. Usually it's in the opening round, but not too far beyond that. Of the 16 amateurs to play in the tournament since 2000, only one has survived the cut. This week, three did.

Not since 1998, when Matt Kuchar finished 21st at the Masters with a constant smile on his face, has an amateur both wowed and endeared the gallery.

Performances like that are few and far between.

"Every year the question is, 'Can an amateur win this tournament?"' said Hunter Mahan, a 20-year-old from Oklahoma State who was one of three amateurs to make the cut. The other was Ryan Moore. "It's tough the first year . . . the surroundings are very different from what we're used to."

Barnes will attest to that. The 22-year old often plays in front of college crowds that usually consists of just teammates, opponents and coaches. But Barnes isn't exactly a newcomer to the big stage. He played the Chrysler Classic of Tucson last month with a sponsor exemption, finishing tied for 18th place. In 1999, he caddied for his brother, Andy, at the U.S. Open at Pinehurst. And a year later, he played as an amateur in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.

But the experiences of a month ago at the Chrysler Classic helped him the most.

"It was a definite confidence boost, knowing I could go out and compete," he said. "I didn't have the best final nine that day (shooting a 2-over-par 38) and I still got in the top 20."

Barnes could've also played at last year's Bay Hill Invitational in Orlando. He received a sponsor exemption, but opted not to play because it conflicted with a college tournament.

"Things have been really busy," Barnes said.

And they went from busy to whirlwind.

"It's been just a great experience," Barnes said. "I couldn't explain it in words."

That's OK. His golf game spoke loud enough.

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