Ben Smith might have had a chance at winning the Showdown Classic golf tournament here Sunday afternoon. He might have nailed down his first-ever Senior Tour championship and, in the process, become the first pro golfer who didn't play on the PGA Tour to win a senior event.
He might have, except for one problem. Standing between Smith and history was Miller Westford Barber Jr., the landlord of the Jeremy Ranch Golf Course and the unofficial patriarch and general enforcer of the Old Money on the PGA's Senior Tour.To get to the top stop, Smith had to get through Barber - a rather cheap shot, really, on the part of the golfing fates. It was like saying to the captain of the Titanic, OK, you can make it to Manhattan if you can get past this iceberg.
Miller Westford Barber may not look like the Senior Tour bully. He's 57 years old, he wears glasses, he's 5-foot-11 if he stands up straight, he weighs 210 pounds, and he has a golf swing that looks like a roto-rooter impression.
But he is as competitive as a killer shark. He hasn't gotten older, he's gotten tougher. In seven years as a Senior, he's won more than $1.7 million, which is more money than any post-50 golfer alive or dead, including the likes of Billy Casper, Arnold Palmer, Don January and Gene Littler. He's won 23 Senior tournaments - which is second only to January's 26 - and when he doesn't win he places consistently in the top 10.
As if this wasn't enough for Smith - a professional golf newcomer since he turned 50 four years ago and qualified for the Senior Tour - to deal with yesterday, there was also Barber's relationship with the Jeremy Ranch course.
He owns it.
Not literally. In fact, no one's quite sure just who does own the Jeremy Ranch Golf Course these days, or if anyone wants to. There seems to be a lot of litigation going on. Barber just owns it in a figurative sense. As in, "He walks around here like he owns the place."
Consider that coming into yesterday's final round, Barber had played in every Jeremy Ranch Shootout/Showdown since the tournament's inception in 1982. He was second in '82, fifth in 1983, when he teamed with Lee Trevino; second in 1984, when he teamed with Gil Morgan; first in 1985, when he teamed with Ben Crenshaw; ninth in 1986, when he teamed with Fred Couples; and first in 1987 when the event returned to a Senior-only format.
Earlier in the week he admitted that he had uncommon success in the Utah mountains. "The only other places where I remember having such consistent success were at Greensboro and Charlotte, on the regular tour," said Barber, "I do seem to play well here."
Also not helping Smith's cause was the fact that he and Barber were paired together for the final round.
Smith had shot 66-67 during the first two rounds. He had a four-shot lead over Barber as they came to the first tee. After one hole, which Smith birdied to Barber's par, he had a five-shot lead.
On paper, it seemed like plenty. A five-shot lead in golf is the equivalent to, say, two touchdowns in football, a set in tennis, 25 points in the NBA.
But less than four hours later, all Smith could say was, "I needed a bigger lead."
Smith insisted that Barber wasn't the reason he ballooned to a 76 for his final round - which was six shots higher than Barber's 70. "What Miller did didn't bother me at all," he said. "I just had all my bad shots today."
It was like Michael Spinks saying Mike Tyson had nothing to do with his unconsciousness.
Smith held it together through eight holes, maintaining his four-shot cushion. But then, from the ninth hole on, when the stretch run began, attrition set in. He dropped a shot on nine, another at 12, another at 14, another at 16, another at 17 and another at 18.
He lost by two.
Barber had kind words for the man he surpassed. First, he offered to buy him "the best T-bone steak money can buy," and second, he said, "Winning your first tournament is the hardest thing you have to do in this game. The second one's a little easier, but that first one, it's tough."
Was he happy when he learned he'd get to play with Smith in the final round? "I sure was," said Barber. "You always like to play with the guy leading. You can make it man to man, head to head in that situation."
As it turned out, that was Ben Smith's insurmountable problem yesterday at Jeremy Ranch. Every time he looked around, he knew who he had to beat, and that it wasn't going to be easy. In due time the prophecy fulfilled itself. It wasn't.