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Golf's most startling performances are being turned in these cays by a lively-tongued, likable Lilliputian named Jerry Barber. At 44, an age when the majority of touring professionals are nostalgically consigned to the rear ranks of the old guard, this 5-foot 5-inch gentleman from California is beating the best. Thanks to a powerful and unusual swing, a disciplined, analytical approach to the game and a touch of competitive malice in an otherwise peaceable personality, Barber has played well enough to win $30,000 in the last six months.
What's more, he is getting better. "Right now I have the keenest desire to win I have ever had," he says. "Lots of other fellows have won the big ones. I think it's my turn." After years of muscle-building exercises and ignoring "all those who said I was too old and too small," Jerry Barber has become golf's mouse that roared.
Barber uses a battered bunch of nine-year-old irons with chunks of lead set into circular holes in the back of the clubheads. His woods are in worse shape—the holes are unplugged. The head of his ancient putter has fallen off twice out of sheer fatigue. Wielding this archaic equipment is a mere 137 pounds of man, compared, say, to Ben Hogan's 160 pounds (and they call him Bantam Ben) or Mike Souchak's 200. Hair has deserted half the Barber head, spectacles attest to nearsightedness, and the crow's feet at the corners of his eyes are so deep they seem branded in. When he glares with displeasure in his thin-lipped fashion, he looks more like an aging, irritated algebra teacher than an athlete. This illusion of incompetence vanishes when Barber steps up to a golf ball. He plants the left foot solidly, leans in a little from the right and grips the club firmly in large hands backed by massive wrists and forearms. His back-swing is the picture of rhythmic ease; his downswing is an explosion that puts his drives out with all but the very longest hitters. He is a master of the chip and the short approach shot, and his putting is generally conceded to be the best in the pro ranks today.
"Aw, knock the ball in"
Barber began his big year with a dramatic putt on the final hole of the Yorba Linda Open in January. Playing the last round with Billy Maxwell and Julius Boros, he seemed to have an unbeatable lead until Maxwell sank an eight-iron on the 18th hole for an eagle 3.
Things like this had happened to Barber before. He once had a 10-stroke lead rained out in the Los Angeles Open. Another time Souchak birdied the last six holes to beat him by a single stroke. In all, he had won only two tournaments in 12 years on the tour, and none since 1954.
Maxwell's eagle stunned Barber. Now he had to sink a tough 12-footer to win. "I guess I'm just not supposed to win a tournament," he whispered to Boros. "Aw, knock the ball in the hole," Julius told him. Putting almost carelessly, Barber went ahead and sank it.
The victory putt earned him an invitation to the Tournament of Champions at Las Vegas. He broke the tournament record there by seven strokes and won again. He lost the De Soto Open by one stroke ("stupidity"), set a course-record 63 while finishing second at Indianapolis and had a chance to win the National Open until the 12th hole of the last round. "The wheels stopped turning," he later told members of Los Angeles' Wilshire Country Club, where he is home pro.
The Wilshire Country Club plays a major role in Jerry Barber's life. He has been a pro there for six years but, unlike almost all touring professionals, Barber's affiliation with his club is a real and demanding one. He plays on the tour only seven months a year. The other five he stays at Wilshire, where his time is given to the incessant daily demands made on any club professional. In six years he has not had a vacation.
"It is almost impossible to be a club pro and play the circuit too," Barber said the other day as he sat behind his glass-topped desk in a corner of the Wilshire pro shop. "And you won't believe me, but being on the tour is easier."