Interview: Brian Barnes

BRIAN Barnes greets me at the station at Pulborough with one of those big, soft, spades-for-hands that made him such a fine golfer.

He's wearing shorts of course - part of the flamboyance with which he used to wow the galleries - but these days instead of the zingy gartered knee socks he needs an NHS support stocking on his right leg. And on the drive through the damp West Sussex countryside he tells me all about his lake.

Thinking he still had a good ten years of earning from golf, he bought some land adjacent to his house to extend the garden, dug out a bog and filled the hole with water. "Daily Mail Gardener of the Year 2006, BBC Gardener of the Year 2008," he says with pride, "but that's not me, it's my wife Hilary. She's the most famous member of the household now."

Through the old iron gates we go, up the crunchy drive and inside, past the photographs of Barnesy in a kilt, Barnesy meeting the Queen and Jack Nicklaus deep in conversation with our man ("So Barnesy, tell me again how you beat me twice in one day ... "), along the hall, into the conservatory and there it is.

It's quite something. Barnes, now 66, pushed the boat out and there, indeed, is a boat, moored at the edge of the watery wonderland. The sun has appeared, and a family of call ducks marches across the sparkling lawn. And with Hilary serving up a huge platter of sandwiches and Barnes quickly into the rhythm of funny stories about Kenneth Kaunda and Denis Thatcher, peppering almost every sentence with "bloody" and much chortling, I'm wondering how I'm ever going to find the right moment to bring up his suicide attempts.

No matter, he does. Puts an imaginary gun to his head and pulls the trigger. But, in a grimly comic interlude, it transpires we're talking about different periods of darkness. I'm referring to the winter of 1992-3 when his demon was booze, the one I know about. He's meaning the rheumatoid arthritis which ended his career at the 2000 Hawaiian Open.

"It had gotten so bad I was having to pop 14 painkillers to get through a round. But that day I had to quit at the seventh hole and my hands were so swollen my caddie had to cut my glove off. I then smoked my last cigarette having been a 60-a-day man and you might remember that I puffed a bloody pipe as well." (How could we forget? He was 1977's Pipe Man of the Year, beating Harold Wilson and Magnus Pyke).

"I wasn't exactly looking forward to 30 years, whatever was left, of that pain," he continues. "I'd been Victor Ludorum champ, junior and intermediate, at school - the winner of the games - and there I was not able to swing a club.So I did think: what's the bloody point of living? But I didn't do anything about it, not like before."

Barnesy, the player who in his hey day most golf fans would have most wanted to join them in the pub afterwards, has funnily enough always been shy, a bit of a loner, a permanently aspiring recluse. One of his favourite places of complete solitude is Chanctonbury Hill on the South Downs and twice he drove there drunk with the intention of sending his BMW screaming over the cliffs. "There are woods below. Local legend has it that if you run round them seven times you'll see the devil. By plunging down into them I would probably have met Old Nick quicker but thankfully I didn't have the guts."

The public relationship between Barnesy and bevvy had been a fun one. Everyone remembers the 1981 Drybroughs Scottish Championship at Dalmahoy when he marked his ball with a can of beer. But inevitably the private relationship was quite different.

"Every morning for five years I'd need brandy in my 5:30am coffee before I could face the world. A quadruple brandy, mind you. Then another and another - six quadruples in six cups. After hitting a few balls at my (West Chiltington] club I'd head to the bar for the afternoon, knocking back four pints an hour. At night I'd stick to the wine.

"That was drinking madness and I was pissed every day. If the police had ever stopped me driving I would have blown up that bag."

He winces at the memory of near misses, putting his head in his hands to recall the time he almost knocked down a boy on a tricycle outside the village hall. On another occasion, he went back to the house to collect Hilary for a cocktail-hour rendezvous with Peter Oosterhuis. "She asked if I was okay to drive and I'm afraid I just lost it. I rammed my foot on the accelerator and careered out into the road without looking, then took a blind bend on the wrong side at 70mph. At the hotel Hilary got out without saying a word and walked back to the house. I went in, apologised to Peter, took one sip of my pint and shortly after checked into the Priory. Everything came out after that.

"I hadn't told the family about Chanctonbury Hill, and I hadn't thought of them then. Alcohol is very, very good in small doses; it helps you relax and suddenly you're enjoying life. But over the top of that semi-circle there's depression. I couldn't have cared less about the family, Hilary and our two children. All I bloody thought about was myself."

Reminding yourself of how Barnes looked when he was winning 16 times on the European Tour and notching up six Ryder Cup appearances it's difficult to see how he would lack confidence. In our office Barnes has a photo-file labelled "Action shots" and with his strapping 6ft 2ins frame, flowing blond mane and snazzy shades he's pure Hollywood. But booze? Well, he was weaned on the stuff.(And we also have a file of his called "Drinking, smoking etc" but, hey, newspapers have made bigger confessions this week).

His Turnberry-born father and Glaswegian mother teethed him on milk with whisky and gave him Guinness for his bones. At 13, because he was already so big, he'd be the one among his chums sent to the bar for cider. "It was around this time that Mum and Dad, who were worried I was a slow reader, took me to a so-called expert in child development and the bloody woman concluded I had a lazy eye. It was dyslexia. I was self-conscious and inhibited and, well, a lack of confidence was always my bloody problem right through my career. Dear old Maxy (Max Faulkner, father-in-law, mentor, 1951 Open champ] said that with even just a bit more of the stuff I would have won some majors. But, going into day three of the big ones, I always thought something bad would happen and it usually did."

When Barnes won the Scottish at Dalmahoy he declared: "Surely now I'll be accepted by everyone as a Scot." Who didn't accept him? "There were the odd grumbles. When we got to choose a home nation for World Cups I went with Scotland because that's what Dad always wanted but I remember Eric Brown saying: 'Barnsey's bloody English.' I was born in Featherbed Lane, Purley, which is the far end of Sauchiehall Street, admittedly, but I've always worn the kilt." And out on the course he opted for cut-off trews, a few cans in the bag and a jolly disposition. No question: he was one of us.

His first language, though, was German. "Dad had a government job in Bielefeld helping displaced people after the war and built them a nine-holer to keep them out of trouble. Aged three I'd thwack at a ball and shout 'Raus!' at the caddies to make them fetch it. When we came back to England and I tried that I was perfectly understandably told to eff off."

Barnes attended Millfield School, in Somerset, where any first-team defeat was marked with flags at half-mast but, radically for the time, girls were permitted. "The headmaster once told Dad they had to be good scholastically, good at sport and bloody good in bed. You couldn't get away with that now." But the young Barnes was too shy. He met Hilary when he became one of the Butten Boys, five proteges taken under Faulkner's wing to become future Open champs with their development funded by the financier Ernest Butten. "I thought she was stuck-up," he laughs. "But when we started going out it took me fully six months to pluck up the courage to kiss her. She's a lovely woman, really strong, and with me around she's bloody had to be."

Hothousing for the Buttens included the medical advice - very mid-1960s - that smoking 20 a day was okay because the lads were outside getting lots of fresh air. "The doctor also told us that four pints a day was absolutely fine." But he never did win that Open. In Carnoustie in 1968 he'd led after two rounds.Four years later at Muirfield he again fell away, to a career-best fifth place, though there was no shame in succumbing to the bouncing-bomb driving and outrageous chipping of Lee Trevino who also blew away Tony Jacklin in a classic finish.

"I couldn't do what Lee and Jack (Nicklaus] could do, which was get in the zone and block everything out. If I hit a bad shot I'd become introverted and embarrassed. Of course I was easily bored. If play was slow I'd grab a folding chair from a spectator and a Wilbur Smith from my bag. And of course I should have bloody practised more."

He was Supermex's match as a course clown. "Once I put a sticking plaster over his mouth to prove my theory that he could only play well if he was chuntering away and sure enough I won the next three holes." But at Laurel Valley, scene of 1975's Ryder Cup, he stuck - brilliantly - to the golf and for a while afterwards received the fanfare: "On the tee, Brian Barnes of Scotland, who beat the Golden Bear twice in one day."

"It was matchplay where anyone can beat anyone," he says, trying to play down his greatest day. "Jack had won two majors that year and Arnold Palmer (US captain] wanted someone to give him a game. I won four and three in the morning. Then Jack said to Arnie: 'Give me that Barnes again.'" In the afternoon, Scotland's bear didn't do so well, only winning two and one. "What did we talk about? Oh, fishing, our families - anything but golf. Jack, as ever, was an absolute gent. Mind you, he was bloody pissed off at the end. I can still hear the thump of his golf shoes being flung into the locker."

It's a yarn he's had to tell often - too often. When he designed West Chiltington and membership filled up with novices, they all wanted to hear it, and to buy him a drink. And the one about the Tournament Players' Championship, also at Dalmahoy in '81, when he got slipped a six-pack on the turn on the final day, drained it while going eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie, driving the par-4 17th green and tapping in for another eagle on his way to a course record 62 - then drinking for another two hours until, tied for first, he staggered out and somehow won a four-hole playoff. "That wasn't my only course record," he adds, "and I'm slightly ashamed to say that more were achieved pissed than sober." (But only slightly).

And - go on, Barnsey, have another - they also wanted to hear how he accepted a punter's challenge and played one-handed at the 1977 Skol Lager Individual at Gleneagles. For that he was fined 250 and given a dressing-down by his fellow pros. "I challenged them: 'What are we?' 'Professional golfers,' they said. 'Yes, but we're also bloody entertainers.'"

The man from Skol would hand Barnes cash in an envelope to cover the fine. "The best sponsorship we've ever had', he said, which funnily enough was what the man from Drybroughs said after the beer can-marking incident.Everyone wanted Barnes at their party, even if the man himself would probably rather have ducked out. Kenneth Kaunda, president of Zambia, requested his presence at his Buckingham Palace state banquet. "After I won the Zambian Open two years in a row he wanted to adopt me, so you should have seen Prince Philip's face when I said: 'Hello, Dad, how are you enjoying your visit?'"

Then there was Denis Thatcher. "I'd invited him to officially open West Chiltington but was surprised when he pulled up in his old Ford Estate. He'd stood down his chauffeur for a night on the lash. I had to say: 'But Denis, I'm due back at your No 10 gaffe later - the president of Bangladesh is coming to dinner.' He'd clean forgot."

Easily done when you're in the company of the bloody entertainer. On the drive back to the station he tells me he's drinking again - just two pints a day - but also playing the odd round again, the arthritis having gone into remission. "I know I'm not an alcoholic," he says, "because I didn't end up drinking myself to death when I had to give up golf. That was a terrible day because the last years of my career could have provided a nice nest-egg and some help around the garden for Hilary because now the lake seems like a mistake."

Yes, but a lovely bloody mistake.