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|At the 2003 Masters, Ricky Barnes finished 21st. As it turned out, he was a single shot from earning a return invite to Augusta National, as the top 16 and ties each year are welcomed back the following April.|
Playing with Tiger Woods was, of course, a highlight. Especially the part about actually beating him -- even if it was for a single round.
Ricky Barnes was an amateur competing in his first Masters in 2003, a phenomenal perk granted to the previous year's U.S. Amateur finalists.
And as is tradition at Augusta National, the reigning Amateur champion is typically put in a threesome for the first two rounds with the defending Masters champion, who happened to be Woods.
Barnes, a brash, aggressive college player from the University of Arizona with a homemade swing, managed to get the better of Woods during the first 18 holes, shooting 69 to Tiger's 76, and went on to have an impressive tournament, finishing 21st.
The fact that he missed by one shot a finish among the top 16 -- which would have meant another invitation to the 2004 Masters -- was of little concern. There would be plenty of Masters, and plenty of ways to qualify for the year's first major championship.
Except it didn't exactly work out that way. Barnes has not been to Augusta National since.
Now 29, Barnes qualified for the 2010 Masters by virtue of his tie for second at last year's U.S. Open. The ensuing seven years have seemed like a lifetime.
"I thought I'd get back sooner as a pro," Barnes said recently. "That's what was probably going through my head back then. Then you go through a few years on tour as a pro and you realize how hard it is to actually get back there.
"Not that it was easy as an amateur. You figure there are 80-something pros in the field, and you figure you are good enough to be one of them. And I wasn't."
In 2003, rain plagued the tournament and wiped out the entire first round.
That meant a marathon Friday in which Barnes played 28 holes, followed by 26 on Saturday, to get the tournament caught up.
"I played the first two days with Tiger. It was a lot of fun," he said "It was a childhood dream to play. The course is different than you think it is going to be. I remember it being wet. And we played all those holes in two days. It just came really quick. You didn't have much time to sleep."
Barnes turned pro later in the 2003 season but toiled on the Nationwide Tour for five years before finally earning his PGA Tour card. And even that wasn't easy.
He was 25th on the 2008 Nationwide Tour money list after posting nine top-10 finishes. But a tie for 37th at the season-ending Nationwide Tour Championship left him sweating out his PGA Tour status. Only the top 25 are guaranteed their cards -- Barnes has never made it through Q-school -- and he had to wait two hours to find out that he had secured the last spot.
With his first ticket to the big tour in 2009, Barnes was not particularly successful, having missed six cuts and finishing no higher than 47th in any tournament before the U.S. Open -- for which he had to qualify.
But at Bethpage Black, Barnes held a 1-stroke lead heading into the third and fourth rounds before a final-round 76 relegated him to a second-place tie with Phil Mickelson and David Duval, 2 strokes behind winner Lucas Glover.
There was no trophy, but at least he could enjoy the fact that he would be returning to Augusta, since the top 8 and ties at the U.S. Open get a Masters invitation.
"It never went through my mind during the whole week," Barnes said. "When it finally soaked in was actually when I signed my scorecard after the last round. A lot of disappointment was going through my head. Then it was kind of like, 'Wow, I'm going back to the Masters.' That was probably the first thing that made me smile after the Open."
That finish, however, turned out to be the only top 10 of the year for Barnes, who had to hang on at the end of the season. He ended up finishing 120th on the money list to keep his tour card for this year.
"I've known Ricky for at least 15 years now," said Glover, 30, who has been on tour for six years. "We played junior golf together, college golf.
"It looked like his swing was better, more consistent. He holed a lot of putts the first 27 holes we played together. And he hit a lot of good putts on that back nine that just didn't go in. And I don't know how that putt he hit on 18 didn't go.
"He looks like he's more of a complete player. And I think anybody who gets their tour card, you can say that."
So far this year, Barnes' best finish is ninth at the Northern Trust Open.
And as the Masters approaches, Barnes' anticipation increases.
"As a competitive golfer, you say I'm not going to go back until I'm playing there," he said. "It was good incentive. I'm fortunate that I kept my tour card.
"I'm looking forward to it. Just thinking about it brings a smile to my face. But I'm going to go there thinking of winning. As an amateur, I think you show up and want to play well. Now, having soaked it in and being a pro six years, I'm ready to go."
Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.