Leechburg golfer Barto set sights on U.S. Open
A light-hearted practice round last fall for the WPIAL sectional tournament turned serious when Leechburg's Matt Barto started hitting every green and making every putt with laser-like precision.
It was one of those days for the junior golfer, who carded a 5-under-par 66 at Lenape Heights Golf Course in Ford City — including a 50-yard hole-out for eagle on the ninth hole.
During the round, Barto's coach, Heath Shimer, made an off-the-cuff remark that if Barto played like this, he could qualify for the U.S. Open.
Always the thinker — his mind churns more than a green-cutting mower — Barto's somewhat-delayed reaction was, why not?
On Thursday, the suddenly palpable goal becomes reality when he attempts to make it through a local U.S. Open qualifier at Westmoreland Country Club in Export.
The event is 18 holes, and only three players out of 55 will advance to the sectional round.
“My coach is right: You never know what can happen,” said Barto, who last season won the WPIAL Class AA title and finished second at the PIAA finals. “I have been putting on my big-boy pants this year. I am not afraid to step it up and give it my best go.”
Barto will be paired with Canadian professional Jon Mills, a Web.com Tour player who had a PGA Tour card in 2008. Tour journeymen often are spotted at these qualifiers. But so are scratch amateurs, who are out to roll the dice and chase a dream.
The USGA allows anyone with a handicap index of 1.4 or better to attempt to qualify for the U.S. Open.
“I think it's great for him to try. What does he have to lose?” said Shimer, who will caddie for Barto on Thursday. “He'll be able to see what competition is like outside of the under-18 world.”
Shimer remembers Barto's 66 well — and the moment he planted the idea.
“I was hoping for my sake he didn't set the course record that day, because my name would be on the card and displayed for years to come,” Shimer said, jokingly. “I was honored when he asked me to caddy for him. I'm there to keep up, clean up and shut up. I think he'll have a comfort level with me on the bag that will allow him to perform at his best.”
Barto doesn't set goals, unless they are realistic. Even then, he tries to keep his expectations low. But all he seems to do is contend.
Who knows? Maybe Barto could be the next Beau Hossler — the then-17-year-old high school junior from Orange County, Texas, who led the Open last year for about the length of a commercial break during the second round.
But Barto isn't thinking that big — yet. To him, golf is a process. Shot by shot, thought by thought.
“No matter what happens, it will be a great experience,” he said.
Barto has the hot hand heading into the qualifier. He won the season-opening International Golf Tour's Philly Challenge, his first IJGT win, and finished second at the Western Pa. Major, which offers double-merit points for the standings, at Nemacolin Woodlands.
His third tour event in the 15-19 age division tied him for 10th in Hershey. He plans to play one more IJGT tournament — this weekend, also in Hershey.
Barto battled 35-degree weather and high winds to win in Malvern.
“That was such a huge stage,” he said. “Maybe it sends a message that's (the kind of tournament) where you separate the men from the boys and the thinkers from the other players. I am very methodical, no matters the conditions. Not slow, just fully focused when I play.”
Light snow fell during the event at Nemacolin, but Barto played well.
“My worst finish was when it was 65 degrees,” he said with a laugh.
Barto knows how important putting can be at qualifying tournaments. His new-but-old flatstick hasn't let him down yet.
“My prom date's stepdad gave me his old putter,” Barto said. “It's been lights out. I love the feel of it.”
Barto has Division-I potential, and colleges are beginning to take notice. He's heard from Cleveland State and Rutgers, and likely will get more interest this summer.
“Hopefully I will have a school chosen during or by the end of my senior high school season,” Barto said. “I am using the summer to gauge how well I am playing; it's a big, last-ditch effort to prove to the bigger (colleges) that I can play with some of the best kids in the country. The high school season might be the validation of that.”
Shimer said Barto's dedication is year-round.
“This kid is driven like no other athlete I've personally known,” Shimer said. “(Example): On Dec. 28, 2012, on my way home from officiating a (basketball) Christmas tournament game at West Shamokin — temps were in the high 20s and snow is falling. It's 10:30 p.m., and I drive past the Barto residence only to see Matt in the backyard swinging a club in the snow. I pulled him aside and asked him, ‘Matthew, what on earth are you doing?' His response:
‘Hey coach, Merry Christmas. I have a lesson tomorrow, and I wanted to see if I have anything wrong with my swing that I can work on with my swing coach.”'
“What other high school golfer in Pennsylvania is swinging clubs outside at the end of December?”
Barto won't be the only local player trying to qualify for golf's national championship. Also is the field at Westmoreland Country Club are Oakmont amateur Sean Knapp and Kiski Area graduate Aaron Williams.
Knapp, 51, is considering turning professional and making a run at the Champions Tour.
Bill Beckner Jr. is the local sports editor of the Valley News Dispatch. Reach him at email@example.com.