Blayne Barber doesn’t remember declaring his intention to be a professional golfer. He recalls going to the golf course in Lake City, Fla., with his father, David, beginning at age 3. He has a keen memory of quitting baseball as a preteen to concentrate full-time on the game that would lead him to Auburn University, All-America honors and a spot on the prestigious Walker Cup team.
But he doesn’t remember the exact moment his dream became a spoken goal.
His mother does, though. Terri has told the story so often over the years that Blayne just takes her word for it these days. She recalls that as a 7-year-old, he looked her in the eye one day and simply stated, “I’m going to be a professional golfer.”
Fifteen years later, that goal became a reality.
Upon graduating from Auburn, he turned pro this summer. Which means that the autumn was going to be spent in the same capacity as so many high-profile young professional golfers before him: Competing in the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament – more affectionately known as Q-School.
Like every one of them, Blayne’s destiny would be determined by the qualifying process. Unlike any others, he would be the agent of his own luck.
The following chronicles nine days of doubt. It’s a story of fate and faith, presumption and apprehension, conviction and confusion.
DAY 1: THE INCIDENT
OCT. 25, 2012
It all began with a leaf. One little leaf that fluttered off a nearby branch and came to rest in a bunker adjacent to the 13th green at Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, Ga.
Unfortunately for Blayne, his ball came to rest in the second round of the first stage of Q-School adjacent to that little leaf, sticking up in an awkward vertical pose. He saw it there, took notice of its existence, warned himself about brushing it prior to impact. He reminded himself of Rule 13-4c, a silly and somewhat mystifying policy which prohibits a player from touching a loose impediment in a hazard, even as part of the maneuver to dislodge the ball.
And then he swung.
Maybe he grazed that little leaf on his backswing. Maybe he didn’t. Blayne’s brother, Shayne, was caddieing that day, right next to him at the time, watching closely.
“I was standing right there,” Shayne adamantly states. “It didn’t move.”
Blayne wasn’t so sure, though. Unlike a criminal conviction that requires something beyond reasonable doubt, golf’s rules only allow for two options – certainty and illegality. Which is to say, if a golfer isn’t sure whether he broke a rule, then he’s presumed guilty of breaking that rule.
When he approached the next tee, he apprised his playing partners of the situation and assessed himself a penalty of one stroke, despite Shayne’s continued plea that there was no reasonable doubt. He later signed his scorecard for a 1-under 71 and retreated the 45 minutes back to Auburn, thinking about that one little leaf the entire time.
That night, Blayne recounted his round with current roommate and former teammate Michael Hebert. He told him about the incident and felt a knot in his stomach when Hebert questioned not the action but the consequence.
“He asked, ‘Oh, is that a one- or two-stroke penalty?’” Blayne recalls. “I was like, ‘I’m pretty sure it’s one,’ but I started thinking about it in my head. I knew that if it was a two-stroke penalty and I hit the leaf that I was automatically disqualified.”
There are no gray areas in golf’s draconian rules. Either he missed the leaf and signed for a score higher than he really had or he brushed the leaf and signed for an incorrect score, which would result in disqualification.
Blayne’s fate rested in his own hands.
DAY 2: THE MORNING AFTER
OCT. 26, 2012
Shayne could sense an uneasiness in his brother as they drove to the third round of the four-day event. He could tell something was bothering him.
When they arrived at the course, Blayne quickly sought out two rules officials and explained the situation. Still encumbered by the possibility that he may have touched that leaf, he needed assurance that he was under no penalty if he indeed hadn’t committed the infraction.
“I asked them, ‘If I signed for a score higher than what I shot, that’s OK, correct?’” he relates. “And they said yes.”
That may not have given him much peace of mind, but Blayne was still able to shoot a 2-under 70 to remain well within the mix of the top 18 players and ties who would continue to the second stage of Q-School weeks later.
DAY 3: MIXED EMOTIONS
OCT. 27, 2012
In the final round, Blayne cruised to a 6-under 66. Didn’t possibly glance a leaf in any hazard, didn’t have a doubt about a score that left him in a share of fourth place overall, easily advancing him to the next stage.
Here’s where it’s important to understand just how important this is to a young golfer.
A player who reaches the next stage maintains an opportunity to then advance to Q-School’s final stage, at which PGA Tour status is the ultimate reward, with placement on the developmental Web.com Tour serving as an adequate consolation prize.
That’s the good news. Those who aren’t fortunate enough to advance not only lose their $6,000 tournament entry fee, they are jettisoned to golf’s version of purgatory, attempting to Monday qualify at bigger events or toil away on the mini-tours or – even worse – abandon the dream and take up apprenticeship at a course, stocking inventory and teaching 25-handicaps the finer points of making contact with the ball. With the dissolution of Q-School as we know it beginning next year, there will be even fewer opportunities for players to reach the big-time and more stories of hopefulness giving way to heartbreak.
This was the decision that awaited Blayne. Trust his brother and continue trying to realize his dream or plunge into purgatory for at least the next year of his life.
DAY 4: SLEEPLESS NIGHTS
OCT. 28, 2012
Do or do not. There is no try.
Zen philosopher Yoda – of 'Star Wars' fame, of course – has spawned a generation that spits in the face of notions such as, “It’s the thought that counts.”
Three days after maybe touching that leaf in the hazard and one day after the first stage had been completed, Blayne continued trying to piece together that scene from the 13th hole. There was no videotape; none of his playing partners or their caddies had even noticed the leaf precariously standing in the path of his swing. The lone witness was his brother, who remained steadfast in his assessment that there was no harm and no foul.
And yet, something still didn’t feel right.
“I wanted to make sure I wasn’t convincing myself one way or the other,” he says. “I wanted to believe I didn’t hit it, but I was going back and forth between this uncertainty in my mind. I didn’t want to start my entire career with this uncertainty in my head …
“I was definitely pretty torn up about it; it was weighing on me pretty heavily. It was on my mind all day, every day. I wanted to forget it, I wanted to close the books on it. My caddie says I didn’t hit it, so I want to move on, but it just kept weighing on me. I would lie there at night and there was a constant battle in my head.”
DAY 5: HIS BROTHER’S KEEPER
OCT. 29, 2012
Shayne is 19, a little over three years younger than his big brother. He says they weren’t that close growing up in Lake City, but when Blayne left for college – first at Central Florida for a year, then Auburn – the relationship blossomed.
“We started becoming a lot closer,” he explains. “We don’t talk all the time, but I love watching him and talking to him and keeping up with him.”
He also loves caddieing for Blayne, something the middle of three siblings does at least a few times each year. He knows his game, but even more importantly knows his mindset. Shayne understands that his brother has a penchant for calling penalties on himself – not every round or every tournament or even on a regular basis, but enough that he keeps a careful eye on him anytime he’s in a precarious position, so that Blayne won’t misconstrue a close call as a penalty.
That’s the reason why, as Blayne took a smooth swing at the ball from that bunker five days earlier, Shayne never looked up. Didn’t watch the ball land some 6 feet from the hole, didn’t get a read on which way the ensuing putt would break. Instead, he remained focused on that one little leaf and how it was standing vertically in the same spot both before impact and after.
Now they were both back in Lake City at their parents’ house and while Blayne didn’t directly mention anything about that incident, Shayne could still sense the same uneasiness in his brother as the morning after it happened.
“His brother was convinced he did not do it, so that was a big thing for Blayne,” their mother explains. “There was this struggle between, Did I do it or not do it?”
If Blayne asked, he’d just tell him the same thing again. He didn’t see him graze the leaf. But Blayne didn’t ask again. This wasn’t about what his brother saw. This was about him dealing with the decision internally.
DAY 6: NEW WIFE, NEW LIFE
OCT. 30, 2012
Blayne is engaged to be married to Morgan Stanford on Dec. 15, exactly a dozen days after the final stage of Q-School is completed. In their wildest dreams, the happy occasion could have owned even happier undertones, with the groom about to embark on life as a PGA Tour professional, competing for millions of dollars on a weekly basis. Or maybe he’d be resigned to the consolation prize, playing the demanding Web.com circuit in what would amount to a perfect internship before reaching the top level.
If he decided that he had committed the infraction and needed to disqualify himself, he knew the impact it could have on their first year of marriage and beyond. Forget the money. No longer would they have a chance to live the good life, instead scraping to compete anywhere and everywhere, the prospect looming of long trips and low pay and little fanfare.
It’s hardly the worst thing in the world; plenty of people would gladly trade in their jobs to play golf for a living. But it wasn’t exactly the optimal beginning to married life, either.
As he struggled with his decision, as he continuously and continually replayed that bunker shot in his mind, Blayne included Morgan in his thoughts about what happened.
“I had a lot of conversations with her about what I was thinking and feeling,” he says. “These decisions affect her as well because we’re about to get married.”
DAY 7: KEEPING THE FAITH
OCT. 31, 2012
Some people shy away from public displays of religious affiliation. Not Blayne. His Twitter bio references his Christian faith and he’s more than willing to speak about what it means to him.
“This is something I prayed a lot about,” he says. “I continued to not find peace about it.”
Listen to his words and it’s easy to understand how a resolution began forming through prayer.
“It just goes so much deeper than golf and my PGA Tour card and my career,” he explains. “I didn’t want there to be this little chasm in between me and God or me and this thing that I always thought would be on my conscience and weigh on me. I knew that ultimately when that is weighing on me, I had to just come forward and do what was in my heart. That’s way more important than short-term success.”
DAY 8: THE DECISION
NOV. 1, 2012
On Saturday morning, exactly one week after he may or may not have touched a leaf in a bunker during his backswing, Blayne came to the conclusion that there was only one proper decision.
Still at their parents’ house, he sidled up next to Shayne and told him that he wouldn’t be caddieing for him in second stage, because he wasn’t playing.
He was going to disqualify himself.
“As soon as he told me, I said, ‘If that’s what you need to do, that’s what you need to do. No, you won’t get your card, but there’s good that can come out of this,’” Shayne recalls. “The way he’s handling it, I know it’s going to work out in the long run. I respect his decision a whole lot more than I’ll ever be able to tell him.”
“I don’t know why all this is happening,” Blayne admits. “I don’t know what it will entail in the future, but maybe it will have an effect on someone, maybe someone will learn from it. It’s a lot bigger than me. I just wanted to do my part to make it right and clear my conscience.”
He still doesn’t know if his club touched that leaf. He never will. What he does know is that his career won’t begin under suspicion, even if he was the only one who suspected that he may have committed the penalty.
Blayne also knows that he has the admiration of those closest to him.
“I am very proud of him,” Terri beams. “If he thinks at all that it might have happened, then he did the right thing. I know he’s going to be successful, but he will do it with a clear conscience.”
DAY 9: THE AFTERMATH
NOV. 2, 2012
There are several different ways to interpret this story. One is that it took Blayne Barber too long to disqualify himself, that if reasonable doubt existed he shouldn’t have waited nine days to alert PGA Tour officials and remove himself from the field at second stage. Another is that he’s a fool for giving up the potential of competing for millions of dollars next year on the game’s highest level, instead placing himself in purgatory for something that may not have even happened.
Mostly, though, the resounding response to his decision has been wildly positive. It’s what separates golf from all other competitive pursuits, recalling Bobby Jones’ self-penalization when he chided those who cheered by claiming, “You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank.”
Because of this decision, six players – Robert-Jan Derksen, Jamie Arnold, Corbin Mills, Jonathan Moore, Chesson Hadley and Maarten Lafeber – who originally finished in a share of 19th place have been issued a reprieve, each granted late admission into the second stage of Q-School, thanks to one of their own listening to his conscience.
As for Blayne, he contends he’s already learned not only a lot about himself in the aftermath, but about fellow players, fans and other interested observers.
“It’s been overwhelming,” he says. “I was not expecting this outpouring of support. It’s been a blessing; it’s made me happy and at peace with what happened. And I’m at peace with how it’s going to work out.”