Never won a major. That's like a baseball player who can't hit in October. "I had my chances," Barber says. "I could've won 'em all."
During his two decades of trying, Barber became an inside joke. The players loved him. Week to week, he was good for a laugh. He was the Mysterious Mr. X, not only for his secretive manner but also because he kept turning up in out-of-the-way places, usually by himself or on the track of a good-looking woman. X was a bachelor. "He had money, a nice car, and people knew who he was," says January. "He played it to the hilt."
"One night I saved his life at Condon's," says Rosburg. "X was over in a corner, eating by himself, and the next thing we knew, he was facedown in the plate. He had taken some pills for his hay fever and passed out. I always say I saved him from drowning in his linguine."
People joked that Barber's hair fell out when he was in his 20s, from worrying about golf. He didn't care. He'd spot an attractive female fan, and he'd doff his cap. "Put your hat back on, Miller," January would yell. "Put the hat back on." In the locker room, guys with thick manes would pat Barber's smooth top. "Looks good, X," they'd smirk.
Surreptitiously, Barber bought a toupee. It's easy to visualize him putting it on, patting down the edges and nodding in satisfaction. Rosburg was waiting for Barber in a restaurant one day when he felt a tap on his shoulder. He turned around and saw a stranger. He thought he'd been mistaken for someone else. Then he felt another tap and turned around to see the same stranger, who said in an unmistakable, high-pitched whine, "Rossie, it's me. It's X. It's X."
His ungainly swing aside, Barber's fighting the odds every time he walks on a course. He still carries a large satchel—"my shaving kit"—that contains all the tablets, capsules and sprays needed to control his sneezing, his watering eyes and nose. "I'm just runnin' like a faucet, like a faucet," Barber always says whenever anyone asks him how he's feeling.
"He probably lost a lot of tournaments because of the hay fever," says Rosburg in all seriousness. "One year he was tied for the lead at Orlando and he started sneezing on the 72nd tee. He grabbed a pill—his last one—and when he went to take it, he sneezed again and it popped up in the air and fell into a lake. Now he was really stuck. He topped his tee shot, bogeyed the hole and lost the tournament by a shot."
Says Crenshaw, "X thinks of himself as a walking disaster. He says, 'I look in the mirror in the morning, and there staring at me is the face of adversity.' Everything happens to X. I think he carries a snakebite kit in his satchel. He's always calling out for help—from a doctor, a tournament official. It's amazing. We kid him about his exclamations. They sound like they came from a comic book: Blam! Blooey! Blip! One year we're playing a practice round for the PGA, and three of us are up on the green and there's no X. Where's X? Finally, here he comes, talking to himself. Back in the rough, an elderly man had fallen over dead right next to him. X told us, 'He fell over dead, blip! Just like that, blip!' "
On an airplane, Barber would confidently tell the other players how smart he'd been to arrange for a courtesy car to meet him in the next tour town. "Got to think ahead," X would say. Then at the airport, as the other players pulled away in cabs or rental cars, Barber would be standing morosely, his bags piled up around him, muttering to himself as he waited for his car.
Then there were his sayings. If he missed a putt, X would cry out, "I had a nerve snap," or in self-reproach, "I just had to stab it." If he was playing a practice round against some young guys and an opponent made a bogey on a crucial hole, X, always the Arkansas fan, would call out gleefully, "Fumble, and the Piggies recover on the 10-yard line." Of course, after X finally got married at 39, the guys roared when they learned that his wife, Karen, had a pet name for him: "Precious."