Derek Barron never played college golf.
A late-comer to the sport as a teenager, he played for the Emerald Ridge High School boys team, and nothing outside of that.
And since he got married at an early age, the 26-year-old from Puyallup has always held down at least a full-time job – and often two at the same time.
Yet today Barron will board an airplane to California to take his first step toward an improbable dream of playing on the PGA Tour.
He will be part of a large brigade of Washington golfers pursuing that goal through PGA Tour Qualifying School. Others – University Place’s Andrew Putnam, Lakewood’s Chris Griffin and Edgewood’s Chris Ming – will also tee it up Tuesday at San Juan Oaks Golf Club in Hollister, Calif., for four rounds of the first stage.
PGA Tour Q-school is a three-stage process – finishing in early December at the final-stage site in California where those in the top 25 will earn full-time PGA Tour playing privileges for 2012.
When Barron looks over at his in-state counterparts on the San Juan Oaks driving range, he will see golfers who have taken the roads most traveled to this juncture.
Putnam is a high-profile All-American who recently graduated from Pepperdine. His brother, Michael, plays on the PGA Tour.
Griffin has been a longtime assistant club professional at Tacoma Country and Golf Club who now teaches at Pro Golf Discount in Tacoma. In the past few years, he has had a touring schedule.
And Ming, who frequently caddies at Chambers Bay Golf Course, played mini-tours for years.
None of that applies to Barron. But here he is, a professional golfer since just last month, ready for a chance at the big time.
Longtime golf instructor Todd Erwin, who will caddie for Barron, has coached Barron for years. He witnessed a transformation in Barron from a teenager with no golf training to a young man headed to Q-school.
“I knew before we even started on this that he was 0-for-3,” Erwin said. “He had no junior golf background. He had no collegiate golf. And he had no experience playing in big, national-type events.
“But when someone looks you in the eye and says, ‘I really think I can do this,’ you go with it. He wasn’t looking for that confirmation from me in my eyes. And that is what I was looking for – how deep does that fire burn.”
FINDING THE GAME
Growing up, Barron always wanted to play baseball, just like his father – former major league outfielder Tony Barron, who had 190 at-bats over two seasons with the Montreal Expos and Philadelphia Phillies.
Until he was invited by his father to play the nine-hole Fort Steilacoom Golf Course more than a decade ago, golf wasn’t on his radar.
Barron grabbed a driver on the first tee, took his usual 10-fingered baseball grip and whacked the ball. Barely getting off the ground, the ball traveled 240 yards.
“I have always had decent hand-eye coordination,” he said.
Those holes changed his life. Soon, golf became his obsession. Armed with natural talent, a homemade swing and a set of Spalding Alliance clubs for women, he decided to take on some of the city’s finest junior golfers when he went to high school.
One of them was Ryan Moore, who starred at Puyallup High and is now a fixture on the PGA Tour.
“I made my first eagle against Ryan at Tanwax Greens (in Eatonville),” Barron said. “I had heard everything about him. And on a drivable par 4 I made a 20-foot putt. I ran around the green, and saw he was looking at me like, ‘Who is this (dude)?’ He said, ‘Good job, man!’ ”
Barron never made it to the Class 4A state championships. Uncertain about what to do next after graduating in 2003, he went to work for his grandfather’s business at Eagle Hydraulics in Auburn.
He worked out with the men’s golf team at Green River Community College, but never competed because he decided not to take the minimum course load required to become eligible.
In 2005, he met Meagan Mularski, who also attended Emerald Ridge. They dated, and moved in together. They wed a year later.
Money was tight. Barron worked on the greens crew at Oakbrook Golf and Country Club in Lakewood in the morning, then would start an afternoon shift at the REI distribution center in Sumner. Mularski – now Meagan Barron - held jobs at a tanning salon, a restaurant and a coffee shop.
“There were times we would not see each other until 3 o’clock in the morning, and he would wake me up and share stuff a little bit about his day,” she said. “I always explain to other people about why it is difficult what Derek is doing now. He doesn’t have bankrolls of family money. He didn’t go to school, which I am sure would have been an easier way to get him where he is going. So he’s just had to work a little bit harder.”
About that time, word began spreading around Tacoma Firs Golf Center about a young golfer who could send drives over the facility’s fence some 300 yards away.
Erwin had seen long hitters come through before. He had taught Gig Harbor’s Kyle Stanley, currently one of the PGA Tour’s leaders in driving distance, as a youth.
Finally, Barron and Erwin met. First impression?
“Shut clubface (at address),” Erwin said. “He could hit a golf ball a long ways but he had no idea where it was going.
“Was I thinking Q-school for this guy? No. I was thinking he was a weekend warrior, just like the rest of them.”
Barron kept coming back for instruction – and Erwin provided it. Shortly after the two began working together, Barron was contending in local amateur tournaments. He was in the final group of leaders at the 2008 Tacoma City Amateur, but lost to Olympia’s Jarred Bossio. He nearly won the prestigious Rosauers Open Invitational in Spokane, losing to veteran Jeff Coston of Blaine.
“A lot of people might look at Derek and think he is a cocky dude,” Erwin said. “It is not that way. He has a willingness to learn. He does not act like he knows everything.”
Finally in 2010, Barron won his first title at the Puget Sound Amateur at Lake Spanaway Golf Course. Soon after, Barron approached Erwin and asked him if he had the skill to play professionally.
“I said, ‘Yeah.’ And he said he wanted to do it – and asked, ‘How do we do it?’ ” Erwin said.
Barron’s ball-striking now is nothing short of PGA Tour caliber. The biggest reason for his scoring breakthrough in the past 12 months has been course management – a big Erwin emphasis.
“He has done it the right way under Todd,” said Taylor Ferris, the assistant professional at Allenmore Golf Course, and one of Barron’s closest friends. “They have got a plan, and he is sticking to it.”
Barron’s summer results in 2011 have been astounding – he repeated as Puget Sound Amateur winner, finished fifth at both the Rosauers Open and Northwest Open Invitational, and tied for 12th at the Sahalee Players Championship, where many top NCAA Division I golfers played.
But to solidify a run toward PGA Tour Q-school, low scores were not enough.
He needed money – and fast.
In June, Erwin organized a fundraising tournament at Oakbrook, which raised $9,200.
Yet, the golfer’s best fortune to date happened by chance. At a charity scramble tournament at The Classic Country Club in Spanaway in August, Barron played in a group with a buddy – and made a bunch of birdies.
Little did he know that also playing in the group was Sajan Thomas, the founder, president and chief executive officer of the Gig Harbor-based Thomas Capital Group, a registered stockbroker and dealer.
So impressed with Barron’s game, Thomas asked him what it would take to fund his PGA Tour Q-school dream. Barron answered $75,000. In a matter of days, Thomas and four other investors agreed to pay for all of his golf-related expenses for the rest of the year.
“They are paying for my life, basically,” said Barron, who as part of the deal still works one day a week at NorPro Incorporated, a construction company in Tacoma. “It is weird how everything we needed fell to us right at the right time.”
In mid-September, Barron had to play in a pre-qualifying tournament for Q-school at the PGA West Norman Course in La Quinta, Calif. It is the same area where Tacoma’s Troy Kelly, who has secured his PGA Tour card for next season through the Nationwide Tour, resides.
“Derek kind of reminds me of me a little bit,” Kelly said. “He hasn’t had the funding to pursue this the way he needed to do it, so I know what he is going through. I have told him to just stay positive – he is a great player.”
In that pre-qualifying event, Barron shots rounds of 70, 73 and 69 to finish at 3-under 212, and tied for 10th. He easily advanced to Tuesday’s first stage.
“Most people have been supportive,” Barron said. “But I often hear, ‘What are you going to do when you don’t get there?’ The one thing that I think of is, yeah, I get that (qualifying for the PGA Tour) is hard and grueling. But it is only hard because of what you are playing for. My life isn’t over if I don’t make it.”
Todd Milles: 253-597-8442 Todd.firstname.lastname@example.org