Shortly after enrolling at Texas A&M to satisfy Susie Mae and Kitty, who thought the military atmosphere would be beneficial to him, Barber transferred to Arkansas. He played on the golf team, but back then there wasn't such a thing as a golf scholarship, so he was listed on the football roster. He even thought about playing running back. Pat Summerall, the television announcer and former NFL star, played for the Razorbacks at the time. As Summerall says, "This guy got wiped out on one play and came back to the huddle peering through an earhole of his helmet. He said, 'I gotta find me another——game.' " That was the last time Barber scrimmaged.
After college, Barber, an ROTC guy, wound up in the Air Force, stationed at Sherman, Texas. One of his friends there was Herb Somers, who went on to become a gynecologist in Philadelphia. "Miller's still the same guy he was back then," says Somers. "He loves life." Today when Somers calls his old buddy, he yells into the phone, "Suuuu-eeee!" giving the Arkansas yell. "How 'bout them Hogs?" Barber yells back.
That Barber has made more than $2 million on the golf tour is almost incomprehensible, considering that he couldn't make pocket money when he started in 1959. "He wasn't much of a player," recalls Burke. "But he was a big, solid guy. Those guys last. The little skinny uns burn out." A hole in one in Seattle in 1961 was worth $10,000, which helped clear some debts, but at season's end Barber was back to a flat wallet. He'd won $7,939 in three years. Rosburg got him a job as a teaching pro at The Apawamis Club in Rye, N.Y.
After a year of seasoning under the late Jacques Patroni, Barber was ready to try the circuit once again. He had become a bit of a celebrity in the New York area, winning all the local tournaments. At Apawamis, 60 members put up $100 apiece so Barber could go on the '63 PGA Tour. To them he was just another amusing investment that also gave them golf lessons. But this investment paid off. Barber won $20,764 and at the end of the year gave each backer $200. After that he was on his own.
In the 1963 Oklahoma City Open, he was tied for the lead on the last hole, with a 15-foot birdie putt facing him. He whispered to Dow Finsterwald, "I'm going to lag it."
"What?" said Finsterwald, stunned. "You go for it!"
Barber did—and three-putted to finish fourth. Back at the motel, Palmer congratulated him for his courage. Barber dropped the word "lag" from his vocabulary. He always went for it. "I bopped at it," he says. "Won some and lost some." Says January, "You can't hide a pin from him. When he's on, boy, is he hard to beat."
The tour became Barber's home address; he almost never took a week off. When he wasn't playing, he holed up in the Ramada Inn in Sherman, paying by the week. From the end of 1964 through 1978, Barber won 11 tournaments. Palmer, who's 18 months older, won 16 during the same period, not counting three team championships with Nicklaus. But while Arnie was buzzing the courses on Sunday evenings in his jet, Miller would be loading up the car and heading for the Interstate. Counting his pennies, he'd drive Sanders' auto while Sanders flew from tournament to tournament.
Barber's reputation for frugality became legend. One day, Barber, Rosburg and Ray Floyd ran into some women in Miami Beach. Barber made a big show of announcing that he'd buy dinner. Outside the restaurant Barber slipped Rosburg his credit card and asked him to handle the check. Says Rosburg, "I don't think he knew how to use it."
As the years passed, Barber's biggest disappointment was his failure to win a major title. He came closest at the 1969 U.S. Open at the Champions Golf Club in Houston, the headquarters of his old buddy Burke and the late Jimmy Demaret. Barber took a three-stroke lead into the final round, but faded to a 78. That same year, Barber finished seventh at the Masters, tied for fifth at the PGA and was 10th at the British Open.