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‘Actually, I’m walking the golf course right now. Give me a call around 7:00 or 7:30 tonight.”

That’s Craig Barlow, professional golfer, scouting Torrey Pines GC, preparing for today’s U.S. Open. I found him by way of cellular telephone.

Since the top half-dozen PGA golfers get all the press, I decided to interview someone further down the food chain. I picked Barlow because he was born, raised, and lives in Henderson, Nevada, a town I’m familiar with. This year, according to ESPN, he’s 189th on the money list at $100,794. Not bad money for six months’ work.

I call back at 7:15, precisely. Some chit. Some chat. “Do you have a sense of how well you’re going to do this week?”

“I know I’m going to play well. I don’t know how I’m going to do.”

“You’ve been around for a long time.” Barlow is 35, turned pro in 1995.

“I’ve done okay,” Barlow says. “I’ve made a decent career out of it, for sure.”

I have his stats on the computer screen. “This year, you’ve made $100,000. A couple years back, 2006, you earned a million dollars. I didn’t realize it was so lucrative in the middle of the pack.”

“Yup,” says Barlow. “Since the Tiger Woods boom, the purses on the PGA Tour went up immensely. You’re going to have to make close to $800,000 to keep your job this year. The cut is the top 125 players.”

“The 125th guy makes $800,000 or more?”

“Yeah, that’s how you keep your job. If you don’t finish in the top 125, you have to go back to qualifying school.”

(Avoiding all details, even important ones, the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament works like this: You play six rounds of golf against 160-plus survivors of prequalification, first-stage, and second-stage tournaments. Everyone playing in the final stage is great. You have to finish in the top 26 (the 2007 number) to get your card stamped for a year’s worth of PGA Tour. The greed, money lust, and fame lust saturating Q-school makes it unbearably stressful. Barlow has gone through that ordeal six times. It’s far better to be one of the top 125 golfers on the PGA Tour money list. Those players automatically keep their cards for another year. Barlow has finished 124th, 122nd, 124th, and 100th. This is a man I can root for, even knowing he’s racked up $5,000,000 in career earnings.)

Resume full speed. I ask, “How long can you last on the tour?”

“If I’m healthy and still have a desire for it, as long as I want. I’ve had some health injuries in the last few years [hip, shoulder, and wrist]. That’s been frustrating. You’re not always going to have great things happen. Right now, I’m in my bump in the road.”

“Anything can happen,” I say. “A great showing at the Open changes everything.”

“That’s the beauty of golf — you’re always one tournament away from breaking through,” Barlow says. “There are a lot of good players, but to be at the top echelon, you have to set yourself apart, whether it’s desire or work ethic or positive attitude. There are a lot of great golfers who never make it.”

“Well, you’re good enough to work your way into the Open.” (Barlow shot 141 at the Open Sectional Qualifying Tournament in Daly City, the exact number needed to qualify for Torrey Pines. This will be his fourth Open.)

“Well, yeah,” Barlow says, “I’m taking care of the things I need to do to get out of the slump. I’m starting to see good things happen to my golf game, I just haven’t quite got the results of it.”

And now, a metaphysical question, “What put you in a slump?”

Barlow says, “I can’t put a finger on it, but my guess is I got injured, after my injury had high expectations of picking up where I left off and didn’t achieve that. So, I started pressing and lost confidence and it’s just a snowball effect. There’s nothing wrong. I’m not a worse player now than I was two years ago, but you need to have the whole package working to play competitive golf, meaning your expectation levels have to be good, your attitude has to be good, your patience has to be good. If any of that stuff is off, things don’t churn as well.”

And now, an idiotic question. “It must be tempting to settle for 20th, 25th. How do you avoid shooting for 20th or 25th?”

“I’m shooting for it! It’s not that easy. The guys who finish in the top 20 or 25 are the best 25 in the world. The lowest I’ve been is 189th in the world. People aren’t interested in the 189th best player in the world. I want to be the 25th best player in the world.”

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