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Newest Redbird golfer takes flight during 'Summer of TJ'

TJ Barger smiles for a photo while being interviewed in a WGLT studio. He's seated in a chair.
Randy Kindred
Former Bloomington High School and current Illinois State golfer TJ Barger had plenty to smile about during a summer in which he broke one course record, tied another, placed second in the state's top amateur tournament and played in the U.S. Amateur Championship.

In 1967, the hippie culture celebrated the Summer of Love. In 1985, Bryan Adams gave us the "Summer of ‘69," a rocking romp down memory lane. In between, in 1974, the Beach Boys released a greatest hits album titled "Endless Summer."

So what do we call this? The Summer of TJ has a nice ring.

TJ Barger would cringe at that. Hold off on the souvenir caps and T-shirts. But feel free to marvel at what Barger, the former Bloomington High School and current Illinois State golfer, did with a club in his hands this summer.

“Wow,” ISU men’s golf coach Ray Kralis said when asked about it. “Wow.”

"I think this year, with me coming to ISU, it will be a big change and I think I’ll see a lot of progress in my game."
TJ Barger, ISU golfer

During his hit song, Adams proclaimed the Summer of ‘69 “the best days of my life.” That might be a stretch for Barger, but when you break one course record, finish second in the state’s top amateur tournament, play in the U.S. Amateur Championship, then tie another course record, your days have been pretty darn good.

Barger reports he “lost about 10 pounds this summer just from all the heat and walking I’ve been doing.”

But man, those walks …

“It’s been a lot of good walks,” he said of his time on the course. “I’ve had a lot of struggles throughout the (past) two years. It’s great to see that I’m starting to figure out my game and see the results that I’ve always hoped for.”

Barger spent the previous two years at the University of Illinois, accepting a preferred walk-on offer after winning the Class 2A state championship as a Bloomington sophomore and placing fourth as a junior.

Joining Coach Mike Small’s elite national program was his dream. He chased it, and now, with three years of eligibility remaining, is happy to be a Redbird.

Barger joins a veteran team that won the Missouri Valley Conference championship in May. This past weekend, he helped the Redbirds to second place in the season-opening Island Resort Intercollegiate, shooting rounds of 70, 74 and 73.

He seeks to be a major contributor after failing to crack a deep, talented lineup at Illinois. Still, he says, “I don’t regret any of it.”

“I played with some of the best amateurs in the world,” he said. “Coach Small is a legend. He’s one of the best college golf coaches of all time. It was great to be taught by him. Coach Small and Coach B (assistant coach Justin Bardgett) gave me everything I could possibly want.

“Overall, it’s all business there. It didn’t, I guess, go as planned and that’s why I figured I needed to go where I know I can at least be an asset. I think this year, with me coming to ISU, it will be a big change and I think I’ll see a lot of progress in my game.”

The progress began before Barger attended his first ISU class. His parents, Steve and Stacey Barger of Bloomington, said the decision to transfer sparked his spectacular summer.

“In June, he played a couple of tournaments and didn’t do too well,” Steve Barger said. “I think that was because he didn’t know what he was going to do. The unknown for him was pretty uncomfortable. Once he committed to ISU, I think there was a huge weight off his shoulders.”

“He was like a completely different person,” Stacey said.

It showed on the course. On July 11, Barger was among more than 80 golfers at Weibring Golf Club vying for two qualifying spots in the U.S. Amateur Championship.

He blazed through the first 18 holes in a course-record, 9-under-par 62.

“Everything was obviously going well, but I put the ball in the fairway basically on every hole and from there on, I stuck it to like 10 feet really every time,” Barger said.

Oh, and there was this.

“I usually never eat McDonald’s before (playing) just because it never sits well in my stomach,” Barger said. “But I had McDonald’s because I was kind of in a rush to the course.”

The meal of choice?

“I had a big breakfast with hotcakes,” he said. “I looked it up and it’s actually one of the most unhealthy food items on the menu. I mean, when I get breakfast at McDonald’s, that’s usually what I get.”

With his father as his caddy, Barger followed with a 73 in the afternoon round, finishing at 135 to top the field.

Nine days later, Barger was at it again. In the third round of the Illinois State Amateur Championship on his home course, Bloomington Country Club, he fired a 7-under par 64. A double bogey on the final hole kept him from tying Luke Guthrie’s course record.

McDonald’s again?

“No,” he said. “My mom made me eggs.”

One stroke ahead entering the final round, Barger finished second to defending champion Mac McClear, who carded a 63.

In August, Barger shot 78 and 73 in the U.S. Amateur Championship at Cherry Hills Country Club in Colorado, missing the cut for match play. Yet, the experience – all of his summer experiences – lifted him up.

“It’s given me a lot of confidence going into the season,” he said.

About that. ISU’s team qualifying for the opening tournament included one round at BCC and two at Weibring Golf Club. Barger shot 62 at BCC on Aug. 25, tying Guthrie’s course record.

“He had a putt for 61,” Kralis said. “Needless to say, we’re thrilled to have him join the squad. I had recruited TJ and watched him as a high school player. In this day of college athletics, you hope you never burn bridges because that transfer portal is a viable option for people.

“He’s had a master’s education (in golf) over there under Coach Small and with that team. He wants to play, and in talking with him, I thought he could have an impact here. He’s off and running and he knows some of the guys from junior golf. It has all the makings of being a good fit that could be a win, win, win all the way around.”

TJ's athletic family

As a grade schooler, Barger didn’t expect to play college golf. He was on travel teams in youth basketball, soccer and baseball.

His father was an all-conference quarterback at BHS and played football at Illinois Wesleyan. His mother was a four-sport standout at BHS in basketball, track, cross country and golf, earning third-team all-state honors in basketball and advancing to state in track and golf.

“He gets his athletic ability from his mother,” Steve Barger said. “She was one of those who could pretty much do everything pretty well. TJ’s like that.”

Steve Barger introduced young Thomas Joseph Barger to golf shortly after he could walk. The desire to play it competitively came in junior high when he entered a Prep Tour event, lured by the big trophies he saw.

“That (the Prep Tour) really progressed my game throughout the years,” he said. “It put me on bigger stages.”

Barger also played basketball in high school, a talented 3-point shooter who could play point guard or on the wing. His mother coached basketball at Heyworth High School and his sister, Katie, is a freshman basketball player at Carroll College. His brother, Jake, played golf at BHS with TJ and is a student at the University of Alabama.

Their uncle, Steve Orrick Jr., is the golf professional at BCC, so the bloodlines are there.

“He (TJ) is a natural athlete, so he took to any sport he did,” Stacey Barger said. “But as you get older and you want to get more competitive, you have to kind of focus on one sport. He obviously chose golf. But golf, out of all of them, is probably the most mentally tough. So that’s interesting.

“If it’s anything TJ has to improve, it’s the mental part of golf. He’s got the game. But golf is a brutal sport. You think you’ve got it figured out and the next day, you have no clue.”

Her son is well aware. Yet, he relishes the chance to tee it up.

“I always dreamed of playing college basketball, but I figured you have to play what you’re best at, and I love golf unconditionally,” he said. “It’s been nothing but great to me and yeah, I’m here.”

The Summer of TJ was not endless.

That’s OK.

The guy who made it happen is just getting started.

Veteran Bloomington-Normal journalist joined WGLT as a correspondent in 2023. You can reach Randy at rkindred58@gmail.com.