The car was in gear, he remembers, and he had one foot hovering over the gas pedal. Brian Barnes was trying to persuade himself to slam down on the accelerator, let out the clutch and send his BMW screaming over the cliffs at Chanctonbury Hill on the South Downs overlooking Sussex. It was a January afternoon, one of those depressing winter days when the south coast of England is shrouded in gray, misty rain—a perfect day to commit suicide.
Once the life of every party and pub on the European tour, Barnes had reached such a low four years ago that he thought death was the best way out. His golf career was over, and he had no money to speak of. The good times had been forgotten, swallowed up in an alcoholic haze. Sitting in the car, Barnes looked out over the cliffs and recalled what was often said about the trees below: If you ran around them seven times, you'd see the devil. Barnes had done enough running.
"It's impossible to say what I was thinking," he says, trying to remember that terrifying day. "I didn't start off thinking about committing suicide. The situation developed into that." At the moment of truth, Barnes says a voice inside him said, This is bloody silly. So he turned off the ignition and sat there, feeling like the fool on the hill. He told himself that he didn't have the guts to pop the clutch—the story of his life. But, fortunately, not the story of his death.
Of course, Barnes was drunk that day. He was drunk every day and had been for years. Why, Barnes had been weaned on alcohol, his parents teething him on whisky and milk and pouring him a shot of Guinness, which, it was said, was good for the bones. Later, because he was big for his age, Barnes was the one who was sent into the pub near his house in Somerset, southwest of London, to buy pints for the other 13-year-olds. By the time he found himself sitting in his car on the cliffs, one step away from the devil, Barnes had descended into the hell of alcoholism. His cycle was always the same: Groggy after dead, dreamless sleep, he would begin the new day with several cups of coffee, always fortified by double shots of brandy. After hitting a few balls at West Chiltington Golf Club in West Sussex, he would move on to long hours of swilling beer at the pub, then segue to wine at dinner and drink the evening away. "I had bloody hollow legs," Barnes says. Save for his wife, Hilary, and their children, Guy and Didi, his life was hollow too.
No longer. Last week Barnes sat under a striped canopy at the Golf Center at King's Island in Mason, Ohio. He was studying the latest Senior tour stats, and his name was all over them: First in greens in regulation, first in total driving, second in the all-around category, sixth in scoring, tied for seventh in birdies and eighth in sand saves. Coming up were the final two majors of the senior season, this week's U.S. Senior Open directly followed by the Ford Senior Players Championship, and Barnes liked his chances. Since turning 50 a year ago on June 3, he has made more than $400,000 playing golf—$90,000 of it for winning the British Senior Open last July—and he could bring in nearly as much over the next three years for using Tommy Armour clubs. Almost overnight he has become something of a favorite in the U.S.; at the airport in Cincinnati, some of the limo drivers dispatched by the tournament had him roll up the sleeves covering his beefy biceps, joking that they wouldn't recognize him dressed any other way.
Life has been good since he gave up the bottle not too long after his brush with death. Only now can Barnes look back and clearly see what he had become. "I had a capacity that was bloody unbelievable," he says. "The last years I started hitting the hard stuff. I wasn't getting the same feeling from the beer. I had virtually become immune to it. That was the start of the slippery slope, and that slope can be deadly. Alcohol affects your nerves, your eyesight, and worst of all, it affects your basic character."
The stories are legion. Barnes would regularly tee off with a liter bottle of vodka and orange juice packed in his bag. At the Zambia Open one year he quickly threw down three pints of beer in the clubhouse, checked his watch, then headed for the door. "I better be going now," he said. "I'm on the 10th tee." At the Scottish Professional Championship in 1982 he marked his ball on the 18th green with a beer can, then putted out for the win. In the final round of the 1981 Haig Whisky Tournament Players Championship, a tournament sponsor slipped him a six-pack at the turn, and Barnes drained it while going eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie, then driving the par-4 17th green and tapping in for a second eagle in eight holes. He shot 28 on the back nine, then sat drinking for another two hours while the other players finished. When he wound up tied for first, he staggered out and somehow won a four-hole playoff. (Part of his prize was six cases of whisky.)
At 6'2" and 225 pounds, Barnes—Barnesy, everyone called him—was larger than life, but he could have been a giant. The public and the press viewed his drinking as part of his charm, and he won 16 times, yet his accomplishments did not measure up to his ability. His parents were Scots. His dad played off scratch at Barrassie near Royal Troon and was club secretary at Thurlestone in Devon. Young Brian was pushed toward the game but rebelled and did not swing a club seriously until he was a teenager. Then he began lifting weights, and his chest and back swelled. Britain's Olympic weightlifting coach told Barnes that if golf didn't work out, he could turn him into Mr. Universe. Barnes was too shy for that. "Even today people don't realize there's a shy character behind the extrovert," says Simon Baker, Barnes's caddie on the Senior tour.
Once he turned his full attention to golf, Barnes succeeded almost immediately. At 18 he won the 1964 British Youths. Max Faulkner, the 1951 British Open champion, took Barnes and four other young players he considered to be the best in Great Britain—they were called the Butten Boys after British financier Ernest Butten, who funded Faulkner—under his wing with the purpose of grooming them into Open champions. Barnes never did win the Open, although he came close a couple of times, in 1968 when he finished sixth and in 1972 when he tied for seventh. He did, however, win the hand of Faulkner's daughter, Hilary. She used to chauffeur her father in his Rolls-Royce for training sessions with the Butten Boys. Barnes always thought she was stuck up. She thought he was too young, but eventually they began dating. "It was six months before I kissed her," Barnes remembers. "I think she thought I was gay. Basically, I was just shy." They were married in 1968.
The defining moment of Barnes's playing career to date came at the 1975 Ryder Cup at Laurel Valley in Ligonier, Pa. European captain Bernard Hunt matched Barnes against Jack Nicklaus, who had won the Masters and the PGA that year, in the Sunday-morning singles, and Barnes won 4 and 2. Nicklaus was eager for a rematch and had U.S. captain Arnold Palmer ask Hunt to make it happen. Barnes won again, 2 and 1. "The bigger player you played him against, the more of a chance you'd get a [good] result," says Bernard Gallacher, Barnes's teammate in '75. "Brian needs that type of challenge to get him going."