Ricky Barnes: Slowly Getting to His True Potential

Ricky Barnes has never quite lived up to his press clippings. I can remember at least one LPGA player who was swooning over him and his golf game when he came out. He was the “Can’t Miss Kid,” 6’2″, 200 pounds and an upper body like a linebacker’s.

And he did  have a grand moment when he finished T2 in the 2009 U.S. Open. That was the one played at Bethpage Black and won by Lucas Glover. Adding to the weight of evidence that his time was finally coming, he led after both the second and third rounds. Lost in all of the post-tournament hoopla was the fact that he then went T59, T66, missed six cuts in a row, T39 and T47 at the season-ending Disney. 

But the lessons of 2009 apparently paid off in 2010. He had a 3rd, five more top-10s and three more top-25s. And he hauled in $1.8 million for all of his trouble and patience.

2011 was very good with 2 top 10s and 2 more top 25s. But the reduced production cut the money in half. 2012 produced another haircut due to just a 3rd and three other top 25s. Plus he missed 10 of 28 cuts.

2013 dawned with some promise with two top 20s in the first two tournaments. But then he missed six cuts in a row, finished 69 in Houston and missed his seventh cut in San Antonio.

So, aside from the talent we knew would flourish some day, there was no real reason to expect that he would tie the TPC Louisiana course record of 8-under 64 in the first round of the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. And that was with a bogey and included 6 birdies in 8 holes on the back.

He kind of summed up the way it’s been and why this was so different:

It’s been a while.  I just haven’t gotten off to good starts in the first couple of days.  It seems like I’m always just chasing the cut.  So now to kind of get off to a good start.  Kind of went off to the golf course with one swing thought, and I’ve been working really hard on my short game.

A common denominator on the Tour is that improved play almost always comes from an improved short game.

The real-time key to his round Thursday is that he got off to a hot start with an eagle-3 at the 2nd and a birdie at the 4th:

That kind of got the round going.  Was 2‑under through 2, was 3‑under through 4.  And those are the kind of starts I need and guys do need when they’re not playing that well is to kind of get off and get the accelerator going instead of shifting gears all the time.

He had a very clear impression of where his troubles started this season:

Yeah, it was unfortunate in San Diego, actually.  I was playing pretty well and had a solid first round on the South Course.  It was a weird day Friday.  I don’t know if you guys were out there and it started to rain, got caught and just didn’t perform enough to get the cut there and get back to the South Course and play well.  That was unfortunate.  It just seemed like it was kind of a slow, steady decline after that.

The lesson here is that if you’re feeling down in golf, you’re almost always destined to go down. That’s why attitude is such a big part of the game…and life. And in time, he grew uncomfortable with his swing:

I just wasn’t comfortable with my swing.  I wasn’t putting or chipping very good.  Doubt creeping into the mind a little bit.  So I changed things up.  I started seeing my coach quite a bit in that last stretch the last month and a half.  I think I made two of my last three cuts or something.  But just saw some good things coming around.

Then I actually MDF’d [made the cut but did not finish due to too many players making the cut. They get to play the 3rd round to determine the final order and then leave] last week and snuck home and got some family time.  I didn’t fly in until last night at 5:30.  It was a good way to get home and see the birth of my second child as well.

This next comment is quite interesting because he reveals the vulnerability that even the very best players experience. And they attempt to hunt-and-peck their way back to normalcy the same way we do. We just take longer because we’ve never had the experience of being as good as they are. They at least have a baseline:

Yeah, it’s getting good.  I’ve got one good swing thought going and just trusting it.  That is the main thing.  Going out there and actually trusting what you’re doing is right.

Today it worked.  Some days you doubt it and you try something else, but it’s going well.  I’m starting to see the results.  Probably about four weeks ago I started to see the results on the range and bits and pieces on the golf course, but not always for 18 holes.

And here he talks about that baseline edge. They’ve already played some exceptional golf, so they don’t doubt their credentials as good players:

Yeah, I mean, I think it’s that you’re working on so many things that you’re doubting what you’re working on.  It’s not doubting that you’re a good player and you can compete out here.  But you’re kind of doubting yourself, am I doing the right things?  Am I putting in enough time?  That kind of stuff.  Where you know that I’m putting in enough time, but is it the right work that I’m putting in?  So I know what I’m doing is the right stuff.

Like I’ve said in the past month I’ve seen a lot of good signs.  And today it was nice because it was a pretty stress free round, and I think I only had to chip once on 18 holes, so that’s nice.

Barnes is smart enough to know that he might need a little extra help ordering things, so he enlisted the aide of a sports psychologist:

He came out and analyzed me a little bit with some holes, and, like I said, it’s easier for my caddie and someone else outside the ropes to know this stuff.  So he was noticing some stuff in my routine that you just kind of take for granted.  Stuff that became a little quicker.  I was doing stuff but glancing and really getting focused on some stuff.

It wasn’t like, hey, you need to work on this, this and that.  It’s like hey, be aware of this when you go out and you’re going to approach this.  It was a good thing for me just to kind of sit back like, oh, wow, I definitely do that.  Then maybe the next week we talked about some stuff and what felt comfortable for me out there and all that kind of stuff.  It’s feedback from what we’re giving them.

Like I said, if you’re not honest with them, it’s tough for them to give you good feedback.  That is the best part that I’ve enjoyed about it in the short time that we’ve been working together.

And in this last quote, he demonstrates that he not only has psychological consciousness, but he also kinesthetic consciousness when it comes to putting. He takes his practice putts with a cross-hand stroke, but uses a claw grip when he’s actually ready to putt. The comment is useful for that, but also to share his tip about hitting down (slightly) on his putts:

So longer putts I’ve been working really hard.  I know it’s good to pick that up, but to try to keep my shoulders level.  If you watch a lot of guys that cross‑hand, their shoulders are able to stay very level.  If you go the other way with your right‑hand low and if you’re a right‑handed player, it’s easier to get a loft.  I’ve always had a problem of hitting the ball behind my putter.  So it’s a good way of getting the feeling of hitting down on the ball.  It was something that I implemented into my pre‑routine last week.

I’ve been working on it for a while.  Like I said, it wasn’t like I just put it in today and it was the first thing.  I’ve been working on a lot of things that lead up to being able to put it into play.  Like I said, it’s the same thing with the swing.  You put in that many reps to be able to take it to the golf course.

Last week it went pretty well for me.  It’s a lot of stuff, tightening up my stroke, and it worked today.

And so now we get to observe how he integrates all of this information into this round on Friday. Will it be a fully-integrated effort where he doesn’t need to think about it anymore and he can just play? Or will he get all bound up with swing thoughts that snatch away his body’s ability to play the game if he’d just get out of the way.

It wasn’t like, hey, you need to work on this, this and that.  It’s like hey, be aware of this when you go out and you’re going to approach this.  It was a good thing for me just to kind of sit back like, oh, wow, I definitely do that.  Then maybe the next week we talked about some stuff and what felt comfortable for me out there and all that kind of stuff.  It’s feedback from what we’re giving them.
Like I said, if you’re not honest with them, it’s tough for them to give you good feedback.  That is the best part that I’ve enjoyed about it in the short time that we’ve been working together.
The other thing on the front nine, the second shot on 2 to hit it to‑‑ I had a 12‑footer for eagle and to convert the eagle instead of just kind of making birdie, going to the next hole.  And then on the back nine was to get that third birdie and then on 15, like I said, 15 is playing straight into the wind.  It’s 450 yards so.
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