Miller Barber, 82, Golf Champion With Odd Swing, Dies
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Published: June 12, 2013
Miller Barber, who wielded an unorthodox swing in becoming a leading player on the PGA Tour in the 1960s and a dominant one in the early years of senior play, died on Tuesday in Scottsdale, Ariz. He was 82.
The cause was lymphoma, said his son Richard Barber.
In his nearly half century in professional golf, Barber won 11 times on the PGA Tour, then flourished on the Senior (now Champions) Tour in the 1980s, winning 24 events, including five majors. He played in nearly 1,300 tournaments over all and earned more than $5.6 million.
Barber didn’t seem a prime candidate for pro golf success. He was pudgy, he had hay fever, and his form was ungainly at best.
His right elbow flew outward on his backswing as he raised the club to the outside, bringing it high over his head, the shaft almost perpendicular to the ground. (In a classic backswing, the right elbow remains close to the body and the shaft ends up almost parallel to the ground.) After that he looped the club head inside and produced an orthodox downswing.
Fellow players likened Barber’s contortions to an octopus falling from a tree or a man trying to open an umbrella on a windy day. But he usually got the club face square to the ball, producing long drives and superb iron shots.
“He has a great release through the ball, and that’s one of the most important things,” Arnold Palmer told Newsday in 1989. “And don’t let that muscle tone fool you. He is strong.”
In a 1993 interview with The St. Petersburg Times, Barber said: “When I was young, I tried to get more conventional with the way I swung a golf club. It was a total disaster. I just couldn’t swing like Jack Nicklaus or Sam Snead.”
As he once told Golf Digest: “After I loop the club to the inside on the downswing, I look like any other good player. The downswing is all that matters.”
An East Texan with a twang and a folksy manner, Barber was a favorite among his fellow pros, though a bit of an enigma.
He presented a sinister appearance on the course with his dark glasses (tinted prescription lenses) and dark attire, then was nowhere to be found in the evening.
“I never told anyone where I was going at night,” he said in a Golf magazine interview in 2005. “I was a bachelor and a mystery man with many girlfriends in many cities. For a while they called me 007 — the James Bond movies were popular at the time.”
As Barber recalled it, the tour player Jim Ferree gave him his nickname. “My activities prompted Ferree to start referring to me as the Mysterious Mr. X,” Barber said. That eventually morphed into his being known simply as X.
Miller Westford Barber Jr. was born on March 31, 1931, in Shreveport, La., and grew up in Texarkana, Tex., where his mother, who was separated from his father, ran a grocery.
He began taking golf lessons at 13, and while in high school he received pointers from Byron Nelson, who had stopped in Texarkana, his wife’s hometown, to prepare for the Masters. After playing golf for the University of Arkansas and serving in the Air Force, Barber joined the PGA Tour in 1959.
Barber left for a while to become a teaching pro at the Apawamis Club in Rye, N.Y., then got his first victory in 1964, capturing the Cajun Classic in Lafayette, La.
His best year was 1969. He took a three-shot lead into the final round of the United States Open, at the Champions Golf Club in Houston, but faltered with a 78, finishing in a tie for sixth as the virtually unknown Orville Moody captured the title. Barber was also in the top 10 that year at the Masters, the P.G.A. Championship and the British Open, and he played on the United States Ryder Cup team.
He joined the Senior Tour in 1981 and went on to win a record three Senior Opens (1982, ’84 and ’85) along with the Senior P.G.A. Championship (’81) and the Senior Players Championship (’83). His 24 victories as a senior are fourth on the career list.
In addition to his son Richard, Barber is survived by his wife, Karen, whom he married at 39, and his sons Larry, Casey, Doug and Brad, and 10 grandchildren.
Barber loved his calling, but he was forever bemoaning hay fever problems. He walked the courses with sprays and pills to combat sneezing and watery eyes.
“One year he was tied for the lead at Orlando and he started sneezing on the 72nd tee,” the touring pro Bob Rosburg told Sports Illustrated in 1984. “He grabbed a pill — his last one — and when he went to take it, he sneezed again and it popped 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.”