Tuesday, April 15, 2003

PGA rookie plays with his idols

St. Cloud (Minn.) Times

MAPLE GROVE, Minn. - Aaron Barber spent the final round of the Masters on Sunday doing what he always has done - watching the drama at Augusta National unfold on television.

Barber, however, watched with a more educated eye this time. The former University of Minnesota All-American was not watching his idols vie for the green jacket. Instead, he was watching his colleagues.

It all still seems a bit hard to believe for Barber, 30, who has had a whirlwind three months as a rookie on the PGA Tour.

"It's really weird because for years I've been begging for places to play, and now people are bending over backwards to do things for you and give you stuff," said Barber, who was home in Maple Grove, Minn., last week before leaving for the tour's next stop later this week - The Heritage at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C. "It's been a mind-blowing experience so far. It's amazing how fast everything is thrown at you.

"You walk into the locker room and everything is taken care of. You walk on the range and you're hitting balls next to all of these guys you've watched on TV for so long. I started out pretty slow and really started to wonder if I belonged, which I've gone through at every level. I got humbled right away, but now I finally feel like I can compete. I just can't believe how fast the past eight weeks has gone."

Barber almost never fulfilled his lifelong dream of playing on golf's most esteemed stage. After years of off and on success on mini tours while living in rundown hotels and several failed attempts at making it to the big time at PGA Tour Qualifying School, Barber started to feel as though golf would not be his life.

He contemplated finding a "real job" when he and wife Leah moved back to Minnesota from Florida last year. That's when Leah, who is expecting their first child on May 21, convinced Aaron to give "Q-school" one more shot.

In a 100-plus player field last December, Barber placed in the top five during the grueling six-day, 108-hole marathon where the top 35 finishers earn their PGA Tour card for the following year.

"I knew how much pressure Q-school was, and with Leah being pregnant, I didn't think I could do it," he said. "But it was the strangest thing when I got there. It was like a peaceful focus. If I made a bogey, I just knew there was no time to bitch because my career was on the line."

At the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am in February, where professionals are paired with celebrities, Barber walked to the practice range and found himself schmoozing with actor Kevin Costner, former Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino, and former Masters champion Fred Couples - one of the most popular players on tour. His partner for the week was former "Candid Camera" host Allen Funt.

"I told my caddie, 'This is like a movie,"' Barber said.

Barber initially had a hard time adjusting to the level of play. He missed the 36-hole cut in his first five tournaments as self-doubt was fast replacing his confidence. Barber did not play in the Nissan Open at Riviera after Pebble Beach, and it may have been the best thing to happen to him.

Barber went to the Titleist Training Center in San Diego and was fitted for a new driver and 3-wood. Renowned putting designer Scotty Cameron crafted Barber a putter suited for his style. His game took off.

He now ranks 31st in greens in regulation, 42nd in driving accuracy, 48th in putting and his Sunday average score of 68 is third on tour.

"I got humbled right away and I knew I had to step it up or I'd disappear," Barber said. "After I made that first cut, I felt the pressure come off. Now I have my expenses covered and can have a good year financially. Now I'm going to work on keeping that card."

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