Paying My Last Respects to a Good Friend, Miller Barber

By JIM O’DAY

There may never be another “Mysterious Mr. X.” I was extremely fortunate to get to know the one who spent many summers with his wife, Karen, at their second home in Rock Creek just outside of Missoula.

For those who might not know the story, PGA golfing professional Miller Barber was affectionately known by his fellow touring pros as “Mr. X, or “The Mysterious Mr. X.”  Miller passed away Tuesday night in Scottsdale, Arizona, after a lengthy illness.  He was 82.

There are many variations as to why the nickname stuck with Miller. In a story in the November 2005 edition of Golf Digest, he said there were two versions as to how he acquired the nickname.  In one, he assumed it came from the original Mr. X., George Bayer, because he once outdrove Bayer in a long-drive contest at the Hartford Open.  Most likely, though, it was given to him by pro Jim Ferree “because I never told anyone where I was going at night. I was a bachelor and a mystery man with many girlfriends in many cities—I didn’t marry Karen until I was 39. It wasn’t their business to know where I was going, so for a while they called me “007”—the James Bond movies were popular at the time. But my activities prompted Ferree to start referring to me as “The Mysterious Mr. X,” and it really stuck.”

Miller Barber, Photographed Aug. 26, 2005, In Phoenix. Photo credit: GolfDigest.

Miller was born in Shreveport, Louisiana, and graduated from the University of Arkansas in 1954. He won the first of his 11 PGA Tour events in 1964. Although he never claimed victory in any of the four majors, he came extremely close in both the 1969 U.S. Open (where he held a three-shot lead heading into the final day only to fire a 78 to finish three strokes behind the winner, Orville Moody) and the 1969 Masters (where he was two shots off the lead heading into the final round, but shot 74 and ended 7th).  In fact, Miller placed in the top 10 in all four majors that year.  He was also a member of the prestigious United States Ryder Cup teams in both 1969 and 1971.

Throughout the 1980s, Miller was one of the most dominate players on the Senior PGA tour that included golfers such as Lee Trevino and Arnold Palmer.  His 24 wins on the Senior Tour included five majors (three of them U.S. Senior Open championships). He still holds the record for combined PGA Tour and Champions Tour starts at 1,297.

Although Miller grew up in Arkansas, and spend a considerable amount of time based in Sherman, Texas (he is a member of both the Arkansas and Texas Halls of Fame), he had a fondness in his heart for Montana.  He loved golf, but also had a great passion for fly fishing – and that’s what originally brought him to the Treasure State.  Between the two, it kept him coming back each year.  In fact, he owned a fly shop in Missoula for a time.

Miller always gave back to the communities in which he lived.  In Sherman, he served on the local school board from 1986-92 despite maintaining a hectic golf schedule.  In Missoula, he formed the Miller Barber Pro-Am as a fundraiser for the University of Montana Foundation in the 1990s.  The successful event produced scholarship dollars for deserving UM students.

Miller Barber

“Mysterious Mr.X”

He may have been a devoted fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks, but he thoroughly enjoyed the UM Grizzlies – and when he wasn’t attending the football games in person, he was watching closely on television where ever he might be.  During my time as athletic director at UM, Miller showed up in my office many times just to “catch up,” and I loved his stories.  He was also a frequent visitor to the Canyon Club on the east side of Washington-Grizzly Stadium for Griz home games.  When he wasn’t out at Rock Creek, you could find him playing golf or hitting balls at many of the local courses.

Fortunately, my family got to know Miller and Karen quite well the past 10 years.  They hosted us at their home in Rock Creek, as well as Scottsdale where they have resided on the Grayhawk Golf Club for a number of years. I golfed with Miller at the Missoula Country Club, Stock Farm and at his pride-and-joy, Whisper Rock in Scottsdale. It was there where he found a job for our oldest son, Chris, for three years – and at an extremely private course known best for its lead investor, Phil Mickelson, along with many other top touring golf professionals.  Miller also found employment in the area for our middle son, Kevin, at TPC-Scottsdale, the site of the annual and extremely popular Phoenix Open.

It was at Whisper Rock a few years ago where I realized just how respected Miller was by the upper echelon in the golf community.  It was a treat to play this incredible course, but it was even better watching how he was treated by staff and other golfers.  He had his own “red flag” for his golf cart so he could go places where others weren’t allowed.  He had his own table reserved just for the professional golfers who went into the clubhouse for a beverage or a place to eat.  Everyone referred to him as “Mr. Barber.”  In conversation, I asked if I should be calling him “Mr. Barber,” and not “Miller.”  In his Texas twang, he said, “Oh Jim, you can call me anything you want. I don’t care.”  I went one step further.  “What would Tiger Woods call you?” I asked.  To this, he replied, “Well, I really don’t know Tiger very well, but he’d probably call me Mr. Barber.”   With that, I felt privileged that I could still refer to him as “Miller.”

Miller Barber. Montana Matters Collaboration for Conservation.

Miller Barber – 1931-2013. Photo courtesy of Montana Matters Collaboration forConservation.

I only saw Miller upset a couple of times.  The most recent was last year when he was charged $13 for a glass of wine at an eating establishment in Scottsdale. With ailing health and back issues, he often became irritated by his inability to control his game and hit the ball the way he had in the past. The others usually resulted from watching Mickelson try his best to turn a fairly easy win into a real challenging victory (or loss) as the result of his erratic shot selection or questionable course management. If you wanted to rattle Miller, all you had to do was bring up the frustrations he had with his son Larry’s roommate, and golfing teammate, at Arizona State University.  Still, Miller and Mickelson had a very close personal relationship and high mutual respect for each other – and called each other often.  Miller was the teacher/coach and Phil the student/athlete seeking advice.

Miller was unique.  He was a true gentleman and a professional in every way.  He treated people with class, and he exemplified class himself. He never turned down an autograph seeker, or a request for an item to be used in a charity auction. He chatted with anyone within range, and was always comfortable being just another adopted Montanan who loved this little part of heaven.  He was the best, and for that, myself and many others are thankful we got to know the “Mysterious Mr. X.”

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Check out Jim O’Day’s blog archive. Big 10 Decision Could Have Major Impact On FCS SchoolsAre Predetermined Tournament Sites in the Big Sky Conference’s Future? What the Financial Numbers mean for UM/MSU Athletics. Hiring/Retaining College Coaches is Becoming ToughFormer UM Coaches/Missoula Stars Making it Big in College FootballWhy I chose to Make It Missoula, The Ups & Downs of Being a Griz Fan, Once a Griz, Always a Griz.

Jim O’Day was Director of Athletics at the University of Montana from 2005-2012. Prior to that, he served as the Assistant Director of the Grizzly Athletic Association and later as the Director of Development  for Intercollegiate Athletics. Prior to returning to his alma mater in 1998, O’Day was the owner and publisher of the family-owned Western Breeze newspaper in Cut Bank, MT. Jim currently works for The Farran Group, a real estate development/investment firm based in Missoula.  In addition, Jim serves as a consultant for Epio Solutions out of Seattle, a sports based agency primarily focused on monitoring social media platforms for various colleges and universities. Jim and his wife Kathy have three sons: Chris, Kevin and Brian.  Chris and Kevin are graduates of UM, while Brian is currently a senior atUM.

 

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