Obituary: Miller Barber / Top golfer in '60s had unorthodox swing

March 31, 1931 -- June 11, 2013


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Miller Barber, who wielded a famously unorthodox swing to become a leading player on the PGA Tour in the 1960s and a dominant one in the early years of senior play, died Tuesday. He was 82. His death was announced by the PGA Tour. No other details were given.

In his nearly half-century in pro golf, Mr. 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 overall and earned more than $5.6 million.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. 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, Mr. 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.

Miller Westford Barber Jr. was born on March 31, 1931, in Shreveport, La., and grew up in Texarkana, Texas, 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, Mr. Barber joined the PGA Tour in 1959.

Mr. Barber's best year was 1969. He took a three-shot lead into the final round of the U.S. 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. Mr. Barber was also in the top 10 that year at the Masters, the PGA Championship and the British Open and played on the U.S. 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 PGA Championship ('81) and the Senior Players Championship ('83). His 24 victories as a senior are fourth on the career list.

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