BETHESDA, MARYLAND l They were 15-year-old kids, Ty Tryon, Christo Greyling and Mike Barbosa, when they visited the famed Pine Valley for the first time. Tryon’s grandfather set it up and served as host.
For these precocious Florida kids, the world was their oyster. Anything seemed possible. Pro golf, if not stardom, was their destiny.
Years later, they were reunited at Congressional, as all three qualified for the U.S. Open played last week. As a result, much was written about the trials and tribulations that visited the lives of Tryon and Greyling. Very little was written about 28-year-old Barbosa outside of his hometown newspaper in St. Petersburg. For Barbosa took the road less traveled and remained an amateur, and he has no regrets whatsoever.
Barbosa was a solid, if not spectacular junior golfer, earning first-team All-American recognition from the American Junior Golf Association in 1999. With that résumé, he gained a scholarship to Georgia Tech, and in time became a solid contributor to a very talented college golf team.
Never the best player on the squad, Barbosa played in every event his junior and senior season, and 30 straight dating back to the spring of his sophomore season. His biggest win came in the summer before his senior year when he took home the trophy from the Cardinal Amateur. His childhood dreams of life as a professional golfer seemed to be the logical next step.
Until they weren’t.
Somewhere along the way of his final year in school, doubts crept into his mind. He surmised that it was going to take a four- to eight-year commitment to determine if he could play at that level, a commitment he wasn’t willing to make. Well-read and naturally curious, he had interests outside of golf, and wasn’t sure that the lifestyle, the grind, was for him.
It seemed, in his mind, that there was something more out there for him, something a bit more stimulating than trying to get a small white ball to do what he wanted it to do. And so after considerable discussions with his college coach and his parents, Barbosa passed on pro golf. Never even tried.
It was a difficult decision, as you would expect when you walk away from your childhood dreams. And it was made harder by the success that some of the Georgia Tech guys were having on Tour, like Matt Kuchar and Stewart Cink.
A wonderful year of amateur golf ensued after he graduated and prepared to go to law school. He played the American summer amateur circuit in 2006. He visited Australia for three weeks while caddying for a friend on the Nationwide Tour and played the great Sand Belt courses.
And he went to the UK, to play the Lytham Trophy and Irish Amateur. It was in Ireland that he befriended American mid-amateur Mike McCoy and a band of merry American golfers on competitive holiday. McCoy took Barbosa under his wing, and they became closest of friends, despite a 20-year age difference.
Barbosa enrolled in Stetson Law School, thrived in the environment and on the intellectual challenge, and eventually passed the bar. He got married and took a job in the financial services industry, working for a privately held company that encourages and supports his other life in golf.
The Open was his fifth USGA appearance dating back to his youth, and it most certainly won’t be his last. He is starting to get some traction on the mid-am circuit. He has been to the quarterfinals of the Crump Cup at Pine Valley and has a top-five finish at the Coleman at Seminole.
What Barbosa is demonstrating is that for elite golfers, pro golf is not the only path. There are riches, to be sure. But what really are the odds? A few hundred guys have their Tour card, and each year, several thousand chase it. For every one who catches the brass ring, there is a Ty Tryon or Christo Greyling, struggling away in an unforgiving profession.
Barbosa professes no regrets, and his sincerity is convincing.
“Tour life is an illusion for most, and I wanted to do more than chase an illusion,” he told me at Congressional.
But he does admit to wondering from time to time, what if? It’s hard not to, given the way he grew up, the players he played with and against. He has teammates from Georgia Tech with PGA Tour cards. He was greeted warmly at Congressional by guys who you see on television late Sunday afternoon.
Barbosa has a chance to have a very meaningful amateur golf career, similar to that of McCoy, or Nathan Smith. And there once was another lawyer who passed the bar, played big-time golf, but remained a career amateur. Things didn’t work out too badly for Bobby Jones.